So, I was driving a few weeks ago I had a thought. Now this isn’t in and of itself a particularly notable or rare phenomenon, but hey we had to start somewhere alright? I was listening to a song I hadn’t heard in years and was recalled of how I had first become ‘introduced’ to the tune (for any wondering the song was ‘In the Sun’ by Joseph Arthur). I had first encountered the song through ‘Scrubs’. This in turn led me to think about how perfectly timed the entrance of that show had been into my life, specifically into my psychological development. It had been humour in a humourless place. An emotional guide on how to maintain a sense of the joy in life even at the heaviest moments we experience, which is a lesson I still find invaluable to this day. Overall, I felt incredibly lucky to have been introduced to ‘Scrubs’ exactly at the moment in my life when I had been. I’ve always been fascinated by the random chance that seems to govern our lives, so my thoughts drifted to the largest and most unlikely of happening in my life to date. How I met my partner.
That meeting was recounted in full right here in an earlier version of this blog, however after considering the relatability of the tale and the bulk it added, I was unhappily prevailed upon by kindness to my readership to cut it. Suffice it to say the tale involves dramatic and unlikely hospital admissions, life and death struggles with weird medical conditions and 8 hour dates in art galleries, enthralling!
So, returning to the present train of thought. I found myself enamoured with this idea of serendipity and chance. Now whilst these words do have separate meanings; chance being a largely neutral term and serendipity having an air of romance suffused into it. They are largely used to describe the same phenomenon – the unlikely or uncontrolled sequence of events. Soon I realised that another word commonly associated with this is luck, both good and bad. As I continued I found I knew many, many words we use to describe this same phenomenon and the differing emotional inflections they each had. Serendipity for love, luck for financial gain, chaos for the truly bizarre, tragedy for the truly horrid. It was apparent to me that at the centre of it all was the absurd lack of predictability in life and the universe. Which of course excited my existential sensibilities to no end.
I have pondered this train of thought on and off for some weeks now and have come to regard these names as a kind of magic, or at least a modern attempt at magic. You may or may not be familiar with the school of the occult that deals specifically with ‘true naming’. Effectively, the idea suggests that each entity or thing in the universe has a secret ‘true’ name that will give it’s knower power over that entity or thing. Simple enough for me, it certainly has flavours of several strands of religious and mythological traditions baked into it. It seems to me that by attempting to brand the chaos and serendipity of the universe we are not just pigeon holing things for the sake of ease. We are attempting to control their outcomes, or at least their recollections and later influence over our lives. By branding what is effectively a pure manifestation of the chaos at the heart of the universe as serendipity we attempt to make it more palatable, more rosy, friendly and comfortable. We store it next to our happiest moments and derive comfort from it as the years roll past. This stands in direct opposition to a more honest reading of the events as mere dumb luck or improbable chance. Such a reading would serve to make one feel insignificant or powerless against the scale of all that had to occur for that one entirely improbable occurrence to eventuate just as it did. By allowing ourselves this kind of ‘reverse control magic’ we shield ourselves from the harshest of reality and its unknowable nature and chaos by feigning control over it. It has been pointed out to me when giving this explanation to people that the secular version of this ‘magic’ is a legitimate technique used by people suffering from anxiety to move phenomena from an external to an internal locus of psychological control in order to rationalise our experiences.
Obviously, this sensation of chaos can also be combatted with faith ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ and such. Now I will not deny those who would use this explanation their comfort. Certainly, chalking the manifold nature of life’s Chaos up to a deity has its appeal. By giving every manifestation of that chaos, good or bad to one, or many deities, it removes the requirement for the human psyche to rationally explain those unexplainable patterns, correlations and chances that are required for a life to emerge just in the fashion that it does. The fact that through history we have seen a pendulum swing from polytheism to monotheism and back without ever losing the ‘mystery’ of deific control, to me is merely further evidence that it is this inability to comprehend the nature of the universal chaos that gives rise to religion.
At the end of it all though when I look beyond faith, beyond rational traditions of magic, everything gives way to the terrifying beauty and horrible majesty of the cosmos. Chaos, serendipity, luck, chance, tragedy all of it is unknown and unknowable and to attempt to put it all together is to be driven mad. To quote Lovecraft:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.