Maybe it’s just me, but this thought experience comes to my mind quite often.
The thought is how hugely accidental the path of life really is. Despite the conventional wisdom to plan and set goals, much of my social links and connections came about by massive accidents and zero planning. The thought that excites my neurons is to consider how one tiny change in just one of the events in the sequence would have nullified the entire outcome. Here’s what I mean:
I met someone back in 1972. I’ll call him B. B and I happened to be at the same picnic event in Hyde Park in London. It was a wonderful day and as the picnic broke up we happened to be in nearby proximity and chatted. Another woman joined our chat and we decided to have tea at the cafe by the lake in the park. I still know B some 46 years later. Fast forward to 2016 and we were both seated at B’s kitchen table. B was planning a three week hiking trip on the west coast of Canada. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? He was meeting up with a small group of people, one of whom was a woman (J) who I had met at a job I had held for just a few months back in the 1970’s. Thus, I was the introduction link between B and J.
So here’s where life-accidentalism reveals its almighty power to shape our lives more than any amount of planning. As we sat at the kitchen table, I commented to B that he would not be sitting a few feet away planning a fabulous trip to the Pacific North West had I not accidentally met him in the Hyde Park some 46 years ago *and* had I not have taken the job where I met J. J moved to Canada and stayed in touch over the years.
Let me re-state the situation another way to highlight the truly remarkable power of chance-encounterism. If you were to ask B what he was planning for spring, he’d say, “I’m going on a hiking trip in Canada. I know some people in British Columbia and they have a cottage on Vancouver Island where I’ shall be staying and exploring around from there.” I would say, “Wow! That sounds fantastic.” Then you might wonder how fortunate B is to know people who have access to a cottage half way across the world. Chance-encounterism, it’s impact stretching across four decades, was making the hiking trip possible.
Imagine, and I do, imagine if I had left the picnic ten minutes earlier, or B had walked a different route to the bus stop? Our paths would never have crossed. Or J had worked on a different floor in the same building and we had not had regular, or any contact? The answer is of course, there would be no Canadian hiking trip and I would not have been seated at that particular kitchen table. All the social events B and I hosted over the course of the mid 1970’s, which were numerous and exciting, would never have happened.
I admit to feeling a encompassing sense of awe when I think upon how huge parts my life has been defined by chance-encounterism. A moment later arriving at a place, perhaps a red traffic light triggered early, would have made me miss a meeting, and thus an entire collection of life events would never have occurred. (The film Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow comes to mind. The film explores this idea.)
The lesson I’ve learned from this is to be prepared to cultivate chance encounters. I carry some business cards I printed with my name and email address. I offer them to the “chance encounteree” if I sense the meeting has that magical shiver to it. I wouldn’t want to miss an entire chain of wonderful happenings by not being able to contact that person again; or them me.
Chance encounterism is all around waiting with the possibility
of wonderful experiences.
I say, encourage it and welcome it.
E P I L O G
Here’s another short tale of chance-encounterism. I’ll itemize the steps in order to record the episode quickly.
1) I bought a coffee at the Waitrose on the King’s Road, London. Sitting at the only bench seat inside the shop, I shared it with a lady also having coffee. I strike up chit-chat with the lady (N). I give her my card and in return she gives me one of her address labels. The exchange was brief and I never expected to see the woman again. After a day or so I would not have recognized N if we passed on the street.
2) Four months later a news items causes me to drop N a letter. I post the letter and forget all about it. (For the curious, N had mentioned she had an original Mary Quant dress. The Victoria and Albert museum had sent out a call for MQ dresses and shoes to display in an up coming exhibition.)
3) Three months after I sent the letter I muddle my bus connections in Kensington, and end up taking a longer route to get to Sloane Square. It was no big deal. I ended up in the area known as World’s End and waited for a number 22 bus to complete my journey. As I wait for the bus, a lady pulling a wheely-bag full of plants from the nearby nursery joins me at the stop. Once again, I engage in chit-chat with the lady about the plants she had purchased.
4) On the bus I continue talking and cover a topic I had chatted about with the Waitrose coffee lady. “Wait,” she says suddenly. “You wrote me a letter didn’t you.” She says my name. “That’s you isn’t it?” Plant lady on the bus is in fact N from Waitrose seven months earlier. I tell N, jokingly, I am going to faint over the amazing coincidence. The passing acquaintanceship is renewed and we part in good spirits.
Instantly my mind goes to work. If I had taken the correct bus at Kensington, or the bus had been delayed by a gaggle of people ambling over a zebra crossing, or a million other possibilities, the second encounter with N would never have occurred. And my afternoon would have been a lesser afternoon for it.