Question for you: is there anything in this world which is so unfathomable that, if you think about it, the topic threatens to consume you with its mystery? I have to imagine people’s faith in a higher power would be the most common scenario. While there are millions of believers in various religions, the unanswerable and unknowable nature of their given deity, the afterlife, their role on this planet, etc. is something the human brain ruminates about constantly, no matter how strong a person’s belief is. Closer to home, my wife would tell you the infinite vastness of space is something she’s thought about since early childhood. Are there more planets or life forms out there? If so, where did they come from and what are they like? These and myriad other questions don’t necessarily haunt her, but get her mind churning whenever she goes down that path.
[We’re out here, Jen…watching you.]
I’m not a philosophical man myself. Generally I’m not thinking past which book I’m going to read or what my next meal will consist of. If I’m lucky, I *might* be able to remember an appointment or engagement that’s a week out. But every so often an event will take place that makes me reflective as I try to work through the logistics in my head.
What is it that finally gets me thinking?
Seemingly simple and innocent, yet mind-numbingly complex and frustrating, happenstance.
A few Fridays ago I woke up at my normal time of 4:55AM and got myself ready for work. I was out the door about ten minutes later, heading down the town’s main drag, and noticed I was low on gas. Usually I’d drive across town to Kwik Trip, a station I give my business to because it offers great customer service, tons of options for groceries and such, and a clean facility and bathrooms. I contemplated making the sidetrack, then decided I’d just head north and get some fuel along the way instead. I left town and drove up a hill that leads out of the river valley in which I live. To my right was a guard rail, and the land on the other side of that rail slopes down from the road, offering no view of what’s below. It was for that reason that when a deer jumped over the guard rail and hit my car on the fly, I never saw it coming. I yelled and slammed on the brakes, but the deer was already thrashing on the side of the road and the damage to my car was done.
[Driving to work one second, $4k in damage the next.]
Pissed at what had transpired, I called the police to file a report, then limped my car back into town. Being it was early in the morning and I didn’t want to disturb a house full of sleeping people, I drove to a local diner, ordered some breakfast, and started the brooding process.
Why didn’t I just go to the gas station in town?
Why didn’t that damned deer stay put for two seconds longer, or leave two seconds sooner, than it had?
Why didn’t I take a little more time getting ready that morning, or hit the snooze button for five more minutes of rest?
And on and on and on.
It’s during times like these when I realize that we win the lottery multiple times each and every day. In the case of me hitting a deer, the overall odds reported by insurance companies are pretty good that people in certain areas will hit one at some point. But dig deeper and think about what has to happen for me and my car to be in that exact location at the same split second as that deer. Any change in either of our schedules by even a single second would have prevented that accident. It makes my head hurt just thinking about it.
Broaden it out, and the list of possibilities is endless. There’s the proverbial being struck by lightning; drivers who look down at their phones for one second while a pedestrian or biker is on the shoulder, hitting them by accident; a drive-by shooting that claims the life of an innocent person inside an untargeted home or car; a drunk driver who passes all kinds of people safely, then swerves over just enough to fatally hit someone; the September 11th attacks, for God’s sake – all of the people who were there that day when they normally weren’t, and all of the people who normally were there but happened to be away from the fatal crashes. It’s all a crap shoot. It’s all punching a winning lottery ticket, even if the results aren’t necessarily in our favor, and folks, it scares the poo right out of me to think of the infinite paths our lives can go down with just the slightest shift in routine.
Then again, the fallout from happenstance isn’t all bad; there are just as many instances that yield a fortunate outcome. About a decade ago I was at a computer-programming conference when a man in the crowd had a massive heart attack. Luckily for him, the attendee sitting right next to him moonlighted as a volunteer firefighter/EMT and immediately started working on him until additional help could arrive, a circumstance that very likely saved his life. This is only one example of a laundry list of ways that fulfill the right-time, right-place axiom.
My favorite example, selfishly, involves me.
Many moons ago, right around Christmastime, I was trying to find an Air Hog helicopter that one of my sons wanted. I had been to Target and was skunked. Figuring I was screwed, I decided to try Walmart, something I *never* do because their toy section is fairly limited and carries lesser-quality brands. But, desperate times call for desperate measures, so I clomped my way into the store with my poor attitude and wound my way to the toy section.
I found the aisle I was looking for, scanned the shelves, and just as I figured, there was nothing there. Arms crossed, foot tapping, I was running over my options in my head – try to find a helicopter in the Twin Cities? Try to have something shipped express in hopes it would get to me before the holiday? – when around the corner comes Jen, pushing her own shopping cart and looking for a toy for one of her kids. It was the first time I’d seen her in, oh, ten-to-twelve years? Longer? And she…looked…AMAZING. Prettier than she did way back when we spent time together in high school and college. I, on the other hand, looked like a hobo living under a bridge deck – work shirt untucked, hair undone, and a month-old scraggly beard. But, as if it had been just yesterday since we’d seen each other, we hugged and fell into conversation with one another. That seemingly innocuous crossing of paths became the genesis of our renewed relationship, leading to conversation, dating, engagement, and marriage. Never before that moment had we spoken to or seen each other in the years since college. Think about what it took to make that chance meeting happen: I was skunked at Target, which should have had what I needed; I was in Walmart looking in a section I rarely went to and didn’t want to waste my time with that night; she was in the store at the same time; we both happened to be in the same vicinity, as opposed to me looking for an Air Hog and her looking for a gallon of milk; I stood there being pissy as I looked at the empty shelf instead of just walking off; she turned into the same aisle as me as opposed to turning into an adjacent aisle; and probably a thousand other variables that all conspired to put us in that spot at that moment.
I mean, seriously! Am I the only one who marvels over this stuff? From a two-minute interaction to being on the cusp of a fourth wedding anniversary?!?!
Insanity. Insanity, I tell you!
[Air Hogs: bringing people together since 1996.]
Now, could we have met in some alternate scenario? Sure. Anything’s possible. But I’m forever grateful I never had to find out. The things the universe does – good and bad – to bring about the moments we experience in this life are nothing short of amazing. If I think on it too much, or worried about what this world has in store for me in the future, I’d probably be crippled with fear and curl into a ball on the floor, sucking my thumb. Sounds awful. Instead, I think I’ll grab the latest book that has risen to the top of my to-be-read pile, mix myself a drink, and snuggle in next to my wife, all while hoping The Powers That Be see fit to continue blessing me in this life (deer be damned).
Until we meet again…