Thursday, October 15, 2009

Accidents & Opportunities

It is a funny thing that when I read articles (as opposed to novels, etc.), I often get caught up in something that is not the actual subject of what I’m reading. If I’m reading about fish fries, I will probably spend the entirety of the piece pondering something other than fish fries – usually some assumption on which the author has based what s/he has to say about fish fries, something that s/he probably hasn’t even noticed that s/he wrote because that kind of thinking comes so naturally to so many. I talk to my argument students about assumptions (or warrants, as they are called by the Toulmin model of argument), and how we must always be working out that muscle with which we can detect the assumptions underlying our own beliefs/assertions/judgments, and of course the assumptions underlying the arguments of others (which is much more fun, of course). But the more I talk about it, the more I realize what  a tall order it is, how extraordinary we must be in order to catch ourselves. Still, I think it’s a necessary exercise.
Case in point. A few weeks ago, the (then) latest installment of the AltDaily Newsletter arrived in my inbox. As I was reading Christine Dore’s article, "Dating Vegan in Hampton Roads," I was – as usual – off pondering matters other than dating vegan in Hampton Roads.
“Life doesn’t happen by accident.” That’s the line that got me. Really? It seems to me that life does, indeed, happen by accident, for better or worse. I was conceived by accident, the most literal example of life happening by accident, I suppose. And of course, we all know of chance encounters, etc. that have changed people’s lives. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I thought how undesirable it is for life to NOT happen by accident. The kind of control we often try to exert in our lives has shown itself not only useless time and again, but downright destructive in many cases. We want to date a certain kind of person, and draw up our lists of the qualities for which we’re looking. We are so sure we know what we want that in our struggle to strong-arm it into our lives, we resist the beautiful opportunities disguised as “accidents.”  I would call these the magnets with which we actually have a chance of drawing to ourselves the things we want – that is, the essence of what we want. By being fixed and rigid about what we think that looks like, and thinking we know the best way to bring it into existence, we effectively put blinders on.
Related to this are ideas about what is or is not “meant to be,” that “everything happens for a reason” and we only need to figure out what that reason is. I think you know what I mean. I struggled with these concepts for a long time. I hated the ideas embodied by straight-forward fatalism, but the somehow more romantic concepts of two people being meant for each other - or a certain destiny awaiting me if only I could find the key that would unlock my brilliant future that was just sitting there waiting for me, static, like a destination - appealed to me. If a relationship didn’t work out, then that person must not be “the one,” or we were defying the orders of the universe and would suffer accordingly until we came to our senses. 

Here and there, we encounter things, events, people, situations that we just feel in our bones are right for us. I think when this happens that they really are right (and just as an aside, those things have usually come in by accident rather than by design). Where we seem to go wrong, though, is in our desire to direct how they play themselves out in our lives. Rather than staying open and fluid and receptive, we try to take over – we wouldn’t want some crazy accident to take this thing or person out of our lives, after all, or even alter our vision of them or ourselves. If, for example, it’s a person who has come into our lives, the degree to which we attempt to control the relationship (whether we want it to be a friendship, a love relationship, a fling, or anything) is the degree to which we attempt to remove that person from his/her path – and more importantly, it is the degree to which we attempt to remove ourselves from our own path. But there goes that pesky idea again, as if there is a pre-determined path which we must all follow. Let me try to explain what I mean. At any given moment, something has come into our lives that is right. It’s as if we’re walking in the dark, and a patch of ground lights up that is right. If we fail to take that step, we are resisting; if we step in a different direction, we are resisting. But none of this is really to say that there is a step that is wrong, or a direction that is wrong. But for sure, if we’re resisting, we will struggle and life will be more difficult. I had an experience several months ago that provided me with a useful metaphor for what I’m talking about.
I was driving with friends to an event on the peninsula. None of us knew where we were going, so we were using a GPS to get us there. At one point, the directions were somewhat confusing, and the driver missed the turn that would take us in the right direction. No sooner had we realized that we had missed the turn than the GPS was re-calculating. Well, it seemed to say, since you didn’t listen to me, I’ll tell you how else you can get to where you want to go. In this way, there are no mistakes, just endless opportunities, in driving and in life. In this corporeal world, it is easy to trust ourselves to a GPS, easy to understand how that all works, but in what I consider to be real life, it is ourselves from whom we must take direction. Just as we can choose to consult the GPS or get hopelessly lost without it, we can choose to consult our own wisdom and consciousness, that part of ourselves that says whether something is right, that part which recognizes accidents as opportunities, and is always there for us to tap into when we’ve been beaten down by trying to get there without it.  
The question that I’m still left with is why anyone would try to get there without it, and this is a subject I seem to return to repeatedly. Most of us are so busy taking cues from outside of us that the idea of there being cues within us is completely foreign. A good friend of mine sometimes speaks of “listening & following.” She is, of course, speaking of listening to & following those very cues. But in order to do that, we must learn how to find & recognize them, which requires a trust in - and attention to - ourselves that we are not encouraged to develop by the cues we encounter outside of us. Generally, those cues do encourage one kind of selfishness, the kind that inspires consumption, competition, and isolation, the kind that we usually think of when we ponder this word – but they don’t encourage a different, healthy sort of selfishness, the kind that encourages us to truly take care of ourselves in thought and action, the kind that sends us back to ourselves as the primary source of wisdom, the kind that is perhaps better called self regard (since the term “self esteem” has been rendered completely meaningless). And this is where I come back around to the idea of accidents and opportunities. If we can defy convention enough to establish a trust and knowledge and love of ourselves such as I’ve been talking about, we should be able to move through this world sure-footedly, knowing what to take and what to leave, knowing what is right for us and not, knowing how to keep an open and flexible mind, knowing when opportunities may be waiting in the unplanned twists and turns of life.

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