24 August 2016

Beneficiaries of Chance

My friend died ten days ago.  Today would have been his birthday and my mind has been absorbed lately with thoughts and memories of him and his family.  As I reflect  on our relationship, I realized that I consider the deep friendship with him and his wife as the first adult couple relationship that Dan and I had.  All of our other friends we’d met in school or college, and we had friendships with colleagues of ours.  But this one was the first relationship we both made with another married couple and we’ve been lucky enough to sustain it over a couple of decades.

All this reminiscing called to mind a favorite excerpt from Ann Druyan’s book, Life with Carl: 
I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl.  But the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is… Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous - not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural.  We knew that we were beneficiaries of chance… That pure chance could be so generous and so kind… That we could find each other in the immensity of time… The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way that we took care of each other and our family, while he lived.  That is so much more important than the idea I will ever see him someday.  I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again.  But I saw him.  We saw each other.  We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”  

Each of us, if we are lucky, finds someone else in the cosmos with whom there is an intense connection.  Ann Druyan’s relationship with Carl Sagan is one example.  Perhaps your thoughts are called to your relationship with your romantic partner, or the dearest of friends, or a sibling.  We are each beneficiaries of chance, as Druyan so beautifully puts it.

It is pretty much impossible for me to fathom the size of the cosmos in a literal way, as Sagan did.  In light of what remains an incomprehensible abstraction, though, I can still sense my own insignificance.  And I sense it in places like the coast, the desert, or the Grand Canyon, all of which are nearly as insignificant as a single human on a cosmic scale.  It cannot be physically possible for me to create a ripple in the fabric that is an immense universe of universes.

And yet, we are often fortunate enough to feel these ripples, and to be the recipients of them.  If we think of time as linear, as many cultures do, then A leads to B, which leads to C.  The series of choices, though, which caused us to arrive at A in the first place, are like branches of an enormous tree, forking and dividing again and again, leading to a multitude of decisions and other destinations.  What if is a question I rarely let myself ponder, as it serves little purpose except as fuel for regret.  But what if choices had been made differently?  Would they still have led me to you?  Or your grandparents to one another?  What if, what if, what if?

And these ripples work both ways in this roulette of life, making us beneficiaries of chance, and also encumbering us with great suffering and pain.  What if that car hadn’t crossed the double yellow?  What if those cells hadn’t divided exponentially far too quickly and yet simultaneously agonizingly slow?  How much of this life is chance?  How much is the magic we make of it?  My gram was fond of the adage Bloom where you are planted.  Her sentiments aren’t unusual for her generation who encountered far more global hardship during the Great Depression and World War II than I’ve encountered in mine.  I’ve attempted to follow her advice, but it doesn’t account for those electrifying relationships that shock us into a deeper consciousness of the other than we knew were possible.  We’ve all had relationships that we tried too hard to make work and that ended despite our efforts.

It seems unlikely that pure chance alone, or simply willing it so can create a bond with another that makes us grateful for the small ripples in the cosmos that enrich our lives so deeply or shake us to our very foundations.  Louise Erdrich, in her novel the Painted Drum, so beautifully states,

Life will break you.  Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning.  You have to love.  You have to feel.  It is the reason you are here on earth.  You are here to be swallowed up.  And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness.  Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”

We can believe that these connections are destiny.  Or chance.  Or the product of our efforts.  It’s all deeper than I can plumb, and so instead I will focus on my gratitude that I am the beneficiary of the apples that fall around me, whether I planted the orchard or not.  I will remain astonished.