August 21, 2019

Serendipity and the Past as Prologue

Last year, in a moment just dripping with delicious irony, I accidentally discovered Pagan Kennedy’s article on How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity. Kennedy piqued my curiosity in detailing stories like those of an inventor, named Steve Hollinger, who lobbed his digital camera across his studio toward a pile of pillows. He had a seemingly accidental experience, which rewarded him with six patents on The Squito, his name for a throwable videocamera in the shape of a baseball, equipped with gyroscopes and sensors.

Kennedy proceeded to offer several other scientific examples. The most memorable was Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928. As Fleming confessed years later when he woke early that September morn, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer.

These random occurrences are all examples of serendipity, a word that dates back to 1754. Horace Walpole, a belle-lettrist, had been entranced by a Persian fairy tale about three princes from the Isle of Serendipity who possessed superpowers of observation. Walpole suggested that this old tale contained a crucial idea about human genius: As their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity… Walpole proposed a neologism, serendipity, to describe this princely talent for detective work. Originally it meant a skill rather than a random stroke of good fortune.

By its very nature, serendipity implies notions of destiny, fate or Divine Providence. Where in itself, serendipity is a very positive connotation our destinies often have a negative or even tragic outcomes. The other side of Walpole’s coin is often called the Butterfly Effect or sometimes the Chaos Theory. Both theories hold that even miniscule causes can have large effects, with some of them catastrophic. Initially, it was used with weather prediction but later the term became a metaphor used in different contexts.

The butterfly effect describes how a small change in one state can result in large differences in a later state. For example, a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, can sometimes initiate a perfect storm of random effects that might cause a tornado in Texas. Chaos Theory, a term coined by Edward Lorenz, states that ironically there is an inherent order woven within the randomness of these seemingly random changes.

Though absolute cynics will disagree, life can be described as a series of serendipitous and chaotic situations. The working title of my unpublished memoir is Laughter Among the Thorns. It attempts to capture the innate relationship with hope and despair that characterizes most people’s lives. The one thing they all seem to have in common is that they are contingent on what went before them, making the past the author of the present and ultimately a person’s future.

No individual writer spent more time writing about contingencies and the apparent interconnection of life events, than British novelist, Penelope Lively. Lively, now 86, has made a lively career out of her long fascination with the idea that an entire life is shaped by small decisions that seem inconsequential at the time.

According to New York Times reviewer, Charles McGrath, Lively’s own early life was so full of contingency it sounds like the plot of a bad novel. She was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1933, and lived there until almost the end of World War II, a childhood she recounts in her memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda. Lively still remembers the city then with vivid exactness, such as the tins of water in which her bed legs sat, to keep ants from crawling up her bedposts. The family later moved to India, where her parents’ marriage broke up in scandalous fashion, as she described. Consequently she was shipped to a boarding school that turned out to be a sports-obsessed and a very philistine sort of place, where the severest punishment imaginable was to send misbehaving girls to the library and make them read for an hour.

The novel that most dramatically illustrates Lively’s theory of time and memory is Moon Tiger, which was published in 1987. Now out of print, the book is a series of deathbed reflections by a woman named Claudia Hampton, who tells a nurse, I’m writing a history of the world, and then adds, to herself: The whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute, from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine. She looks back on her life, including childhood, love affairs (including an incestuous one), motherhood, and her years as a war correspondent, in scenes that seem arranged in random order. Her most recent novel, How It All Began, published in 2011 is about a seemingly random event, the London mugging of an old woman and the ensuing events that set off a chain reaction, drastically altering the lives of seven different characters.

For all religions, whether Christian or pagan, a belief in Providence, understood in the wider sense of a superhuman being who governs the universe and directs the course of human affairs with definite purpose and beneficent design, has always been a practical belief. But it falls to the Catholic understanding of Divine Providence to bring clarity to this issue. In the Catholic faith, serendipity clearly implies the hope that the apparent good that happens to one is part of God’s overall plan. But the butterfly also flaps her wings, affecting all who inhabit the earth. She reminds us that even if life is filled with crosses and they need to be carried with grace and humble acceptance. This turns even the worse misfortunes into a good that enriches us as human beings.

Divine Providence is also evident throughout history. Michael Medved’s recent book, The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic demonstrates how large a role God has played in our history and how important he was to America’s forbears. His examination of United States history from the Pilgrims to the Civil War underscores the unique connection of many of the nation’s founders and their unwavering belief in the God’s Divine Providence.

Historians may categorize these incidents as happy accidents, callous crimes, or the product of brilliant leadership, but the most notable leaders of the past 400 years have identified this good fortune as something else–a reflection of divine providence. Medved’s book captures a record of improbabilities and amazements that demonstrate what the Founders always believed: that events unfolded according to a master plan, with destiny playing an unmistakable role in lifting the nation to greatness.

While millions worry over the nation losing its way, Medved’s sweeping narrative, bursting with dramatic events and lively portraits of unforgettable, occasionally little-known characters, affirms America as fortune’s favorite, shaped by a distinctive destiny from our beginnings to the present day. America has been the only player in the world where a nation forged its future on faith in God, buttressed by man’s innate desire to be free. Consequently, America has stood arm and shoulders above other countries in the world.

This is not to claim that the United States has been a perfect nation. It was founded with a wink and a nod at slavery, which many have called our original sin. That flaw still poisons the body politic because many of the founding fathers successors have politicized it for their own electoral and material lusts.

I can easily see God’s invisible hand working in my life. I was touched by a priest while in College who attracted me to the Catholic Lay Extension, where I eventually would meet the woman whose presence shaped the course of my life. Several random forces seem to militate about my ever realizing that destiny. The most serious was that the plane that was to carry me to Chicago for training crashed into Lake Michigan, killing all 37 aboard the night before I was supposed fly in that DC-3. My destiny could very easily been with those of the victims the night before. Fran of the popular TV show of my youth, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, just missed being on that fatal Flight. I wonder what her thoughts were!

Later there were rejections that led me to be officially washed out of the program. Somehow I got by them. Then there was the lovely fellow volunteer and New Yorker, whom I had met, quite by accident. She could have been my destiny. But the beautiful nurse in Charleston, Missouri proved that not to be my path.

And finally it took a popular women’s movie, or what they call a Chick Flick named Serendipity to crystallize all these thoughts under the umbrella of serendipity. The film is a romantic drama about how the hand of fate affects two people who meet by chance at Christmas in New York. Jonathan Trager (John Cusack) meets Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) trying to buy the same pair of black cashmere gloves at Bloomingdale’s. They feel a mutual attraction and despite the fact that each is involved in other relationships, they end up sharing dessert at Serendipity 3, where Sara reveals her opinion that fate determines a lot of her decisions in life. They say their goodbyes and leave, but both return to the same restaurant a short while later to retrieve forgotten garments

Considering this to be a stroke of fate, Jonathan and Sara decide to spend more time together. At the end of their magical evening they start to exchange phone numbers, but Sara’s gets blown into the wind, which she takes as a bad omen. However, she comes up with the idea of putting their names and phone numbers out to the universe— his written on the back of a $5 bill, hers in the front of a book entitled, Love in the Time of Cholera that she will sell to a used books store the following day.

Fast forward several years and the destined couple are marrying others. Jonathan’s $5 surfaces for Kate during a chance occurrence on an airplane while Jonathan’s fiancée presents him with the book Sarah had inscribed. Both realize that they are partners of destiny and they call off the wedding. Frantic to find each other in New York City, they gravitate toward their first moment of truth, in the Skating Ring in Central Park. This is reminiscent of what Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks experienced on the top of the Empire State building in the serendipitous-laden film, Sleepless in Seattle.

Romantic nonsense? Perhaps! But I firmly believe films like that inspire us to dream, hope and pray that we can find a real earthly companion, similar to the idyllic dreams of Hollywood. Chick Flicks are signs of a real hope for heavenly happiness that awaits us when our earthly purposes have expired.

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Written by
William Borst

WILLIAM A. BORST has taught at virtually all levels of education from elementary school through university, published commentaries in many local and national publications, and hosted a weekly talk show on WGNU radio for 22 years. Having recently served as editor of the Mindszenty Report, Dr. Borst is the author of two prominent books: Liberalism: Fatal Consequences (1999) and The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy (2005). He holds a PhD in American History from St. Louis University.

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Written by William Borst
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