Embracing Chance

My birth, like yours, came about by accident. My mother just happened to be sitting in a soda shop one day when my father walked in and saw her. He was three years older than her; they went to different schools and lived ten miles apart. Some might call their meeting mere coincidence. Others, like Carl Jung perhaps, might call it synchronicity. Maybe if my father had run into a friend and talked for a few minutes, my mother would have been gone by the time he showed up. Maybe if she had been turned the other way on the counter stool, he might never have noticed her. It was an unplanned accident ' a chance occurrence that turned, eventually, into me.

Sometimes it seems everything truly useful and important in my life has come to me unexpectedly, unbidden and unasked for' just by accident, by chance, by coincidence or synchronicity. Every summer from the time I was nine until I graduated from high school, I went to a Christian church camp for a week or two. One night in the summer of 1967 (the 'Summer of Love,' by the way), I was sitting silently waiting for the evening service to begin when someone behind me kicked me in the leg. I paid it no mind. But when I got kicked again, I turned around and saw the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen just laughing at me. I loved her eyes. After the service I followed her down the hill, trying to get to know her. The next afternoon I used up a whole roll of film taking pictures of her. When camp ended, I started writing to her, and eventually she wrote back. After about a year of almost constant correspondence, occasional long distance phone calls, and another week of camp together, we started drifting apart and eventually we lost touch.

Six years later, in the summer of '72, I took a ride with a friend on his motorcycle and we ended up 60 miles away in her hometown. I called her house but she had already left for college, and that, I thought, was that. But one Thursday night in March of '73, I did, for some reason, something I had never done before and would never do again ' I bought and drank all by myself an entire bottle of wild cherry brandy. Afterwards I decided I wanted to talk to a girl ' any girl. So I started calling everyone I knew, but either she wasn't home or she was just leaving or she was washing her hair. I was getting depressed. I was getting discouraged. I was getting desperate. And in my desperation, I thought of that girl from camp, that beautiful laughing girl with those piercing, brilliant blue eyes that I'd loved from the first moment I saw them. Her mother had told me where she'd gone to college, so I took a chance. I got the college's number from information, then called there and asked for her room. Luckily, she was in. We spoke for several hours on the phone, and that weekend I hitchhiked upstate to see her.

I don't have to hitchhike to see her anymore. Thirty years later, we're still together. Thirty years later, we're still in love. But if I had sat someplace else that one evening in the summer of 1967, I might never have seen her, and these past 30 years would have come out very, very differently for me.

So much of my life has come to me by chance, by accident. For example, I got my undergraduate degree from the State College at Purchase. With its emphasis (then, at least) on independent studies and tutorials and its lack of formal grading, it was the perfect college for me. But I never would have gone there if that girl had not been in her dorm room the night I got drunk and called her, because if she hadn't been there, I doubt that I would have tried again ' she'd have become just another one of those now-forgotten girls I tried to talk to that night. If she hadn't been there, we would not have spent that first summer together, and if we hadn't have spent that first summer together, I would have not have missed her so much that college seemed like a total waste of time ' such a waste that I quit in October, telling myself I would never return. If I hadn't quit, she would not have quit either, and we would not have spent the winter and spring together. And if we hadn't spent the winter and spring together, I would never have been haunting the local library where I, just out of curiosity, picked up a list of colleges and stumbled upon Purchase.

We had a bookstore for years because I chanced upon an article in Mother Earth News about how to start a used paperback exchange. We went to graduate school because she happened to overhear some lawyers talking at work and decided she could do that as well as they could. And I got my job teaching because just as I was about to leave the library one day, I noticed, by chance, a copy of my hometown newspaper and wondered if there were any openings down there.

Even our rock and roll band came together by chance. I met one guitarist because he took one of my classes. I met the other because his last name starts with S and he sat behind me in homeroom when we were in high school together. I met our drummer last summer when I filled in on bass at the request of yet another guitarist whom, again, I met by accident.

And just tonight I walked over to the library during the break of my three-hour evening class. I don't know why I went over there' partly just to kill a little time, I guess, and to give me someplace to go. I thought about going upstairs and browsing the stacks a little, but instead I took a look at the display of new arrivals, where I found by chance a very promising new book called River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West ' a book I may not have come across for years, if I hadn't wandered over tonight, but there it sat, staring me in the face, daring me to take it home and read it.

Certainly I don't mean in all this to brag about myself. I only use this personal testimony to demonstrate that my life, at least, is filled to the brim, filled to overflowing, with accident and with chance. It always has been. And I'm certain that if you look at your life, you'll see the same thing. You'll see chance after chance, coincidence after coincidence ' even, depending on your point of view, mistake after mistake.

Life depends upon such occurrences. It depends upon happenstance, upon coincidence, upon accident and chance. It depends upon the unexpected. It even depends upon things going wrong. It's this that gives life its vitality, its sheen, its sparkle.

But chance has its down side as well, and this down side so frightens us, makes us feel so insecure, that we try desperately to find ways to defuse the possibilities chance offers us altogether and eliminate it from our lives. Rather than embrace chance, we run from it. We fear it. We rarely think of, much less give thanks for, the good that comes to us through chance. We see only the bad: a dam bursting, a drunk driver swerving into our lane at 3 AM , a loved one contracting an environmental cancer at 32 years of age. We don't want surprises like this. We want predictability. We want security.

We want, in short, the State and its promise of protection.

Why do we believe that the State can protect us from the vagaries of life? We believe that partly because we want to and partly because the State wants us to. Such belief, after all, grants the State that much more power over individual lives. Why, for example, do we accept compulsory schooling laws? Because someone somewhere might not want his child to learn anything, and we can't take that chance! Why do we allow ourselves to be treated like potential suicidal terrorists when we board an airplane? Because someone somewhere might actually be a suicidal terrorist, and we can't take that chance! Like any living thing, the State seeks growth, seeks Power, and so whenever something goes wrong and it sees an opening, an opportunity to grow, it lies soothingly that, if you'll only let it have its way, it will take care of everything for you. It will make sure that bad things never happen to you again.

This fear of chance is one of the State's best friends. When something goes awry, the State makes a 'law' to prevent its reoccurrence. But so often that only causes even more things to go awry, thus paving the way for even more laws, more rules, more 'preventative measures,' which, the State hopes, will simply continue ad infinitum, thus increasing its Power while reducing yours.

But the State is not omnipotent. It is not, despite its constant and unending protestations to the contrary, God. It is only people whom the rest of us allow the use of force. Otherwise they are subject to the same conditions the rest of us are. They know no more than you or I about the future or of the ramifications of their actions. They don't know what will happen as a result of their laws. They can change chance, perhaps, but they can never vanquish it. They can never eliminate it. To think otherwise is mere vanity. Chance is a natural, essential part of life. We cannot prevent it. We can only accept it. The solution, as always, is not political but is instead philosophical and spiritual.

We cannot, despite all our technological expertise, deny the element of chance. As we read in Ecclesiastes 9:11, 'I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.' We do not know what will happen in the future. We can't know. We can only accept it and know that attempts to avoid it or defeat it will only backfire on us. We must refuse the false, imprisoning security promised by the State. Fearing chance brings nothing but repression. Only welcoming it, only embracing it ' for good as well as for bad ' can ever bring us, as individuals, true freedom.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.