How much of our lives should we leave to chance?
One of my favourite movies of all time comes from 1990s: “Sliding Doors” a rom-com that unusually for that genre, makes you think. The movie, written and directed by Peter Howitt, places Helen, a PR rep played by Gwyneth Paltrow (pre-Goop days thankfully), in two parallel stories. In one version, she runs to catch a train, and is stopped getting into the trains sliding doors (hence the movies title) by a child who gets in the way at the subway station. In this version she gets home later and misses her lazy boyfriend cheating on her with his American mistress and continues to work long hours to support him while he supposedly writes a novel. In the other version, the child is whisked out of the way by the mother, and Helen catches the train, finds her boyfriend cheating, turfs him out and proceeds to get a killer haircut, amazing job and a charming new man: all because she didn’t miss her train. Which begs the question: How much of our lives do we have control over, and how much should we leave to chance? In a nutshell, it’s the fate vs free will debate that has been plaguing us since forever.
If we believe that fate has no part in what happens to us, and co-incidence is responsible for any ‘signs’ we believe we read into the little events that seem far too implausible to explain away as chance, then suddenly we come to believe that we really are on our own here, and no universal or supernatural powers (religious or otherwise) are at play, and life seems a little less magical and even less meaningful. In his book ‘The Improbability Principal’, Statistician David Hand says ‘Extremely improbable events are commonplace’. This is exacerbated by the fact that ,with the human element of six degrees of separation (which in New Zealand is actually only supposedly two), it stands to reason that we will bump into someone we know, or be given a ‘sign’ by an unsuspecting person as a matter of course simply because we are all connected more closely than we realise, and we move around so much, increasing the chances of unexpected, strangely seemingly-connected incidents. We look to give supposed ‘signs’ and what are possibly only random connections more meaning then they really deserve, because we want to believe that life is more than a clinical cause vs effect scenario. But there is a plus side to that scenario, even if it seems a little lack-lustre: if we decide we are in charge of our own destiny, and fate is something more malleable, then we take ownership of our lives, stop waiting for signs, or worse, leaving things to chance. If we were Helen, we would see that our boyfriend was a drop-kick, our hair was lank, and we really should drop the waitressing job and chase our career a bit harder. We shouldn’t have to wait to catch a train to see what is best for us. In some ways, believing in fate seems like a kind of lazy existence. Having said all of this, I guarantee you that everyone who reads this can think of at least one time in their life when an uncanny turn of events changed their lives forever. A serendipitous meeting of a future partner, answering the phone and leaving five minutes later only to realise you may have been part of an accident if you had been on time. There are always things we feel are ‘meant to be’, or too strange to be explained away as pure co-incidence. I think we can be both in the driver’s seat of our own lives but also realise that sometimes the road we are on is governed by something bigger than us. It’s the working hard for something (an exam, a job, a marathon even), doing everything within your power to succeed, and then (and only then) leaving the rest to fate, and letting go of what you cannot control. As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have’.