Chance Vs. Design: The Age-Old Debate

by EllenK on August 8, 2013

I wrote this as a Guest Post for Andrea Hylen’s Heal My Voice 100 Days of Blogging: (here).

Coincidence: happenstance, an accidental converging of similar or related things
Serendipity: an unpredicted but meaningful juxtaposition or sequence of events.

 

I was raised as a logical academician and trained as a social scientific researcher, although my own reputation as such was forged in the corporate world. My father was a respected scholar and my mother was a teacher, albeit with a very creative flair. I was not trained to see “synchronicity” in the world. If two seemingly connected things showed up randomly, I assumed there was a logical explanation, even if it wasn’t clear to the naked eye.

Now I am shifting the lenses through which I see the world. Coincidences have been stacking up like carefully planned and yet seemingly impossible-to-build pyramids. I find that the more I notice, accept, and appreciate these synchronicities, the more magical and colorful the world seems to me.

In the end, it’s really just semantics. As I simply allow the experiences to unfold, insights happen, doors open, tensions resolve. Here’s a powerful example:

In July of 2010, my mother, Paula Tachau lost her intelligent, loving husband – my Dad, who had been struggling with several medical conditions for many months. She was almost 80 and he was almost 81 at the time. They had been married 57 years, most of it fun and challenging and fulfilling. When we finally let him go, it was agonizing; heart wrenching; it all seemed desperately unfair.

After two and a half years on her own, Mom seemed to be perking up a bit – we enjoyed celebrations and movies and concerts; she spoke regularly by phone or exchanged letters with my siblings and her many friends; and she was fully ensconced in life within her retirement community.

On Friday morning, January 4, 2013, Mom got up, put the coffee on, poured half an inch of milk in her coffee mug, poured her cereal and milk in a bowl, set a spoon in the bowl, and stepped into her bedroom to put some earrings away and brush her hair. It took two and a half days to find her, tucked in a little ball in the corner near her earring tree, where she had fallen. It is clear she did not struggle: the Friday bulletin was clutched in her hand; her body was positioned as if it had just slumped down.

Those of us closest to her have definitely cheered her determination and stick-to-it-ness, her ability to grab onto life by the balls even when it seemed unworthy of the effort. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is exactly how she wanted it. She left us on a high note after telling each of us how proud she was of us and how much she enjoyed our accomplishments: no ER visits, no sudden end to routines, no stressful, time-consuming care needed from me, her geographically closest daughter, no costly visits and tears and agony for my siblings who are scattered around the world.

In the last few years, Mom had re-activated her substantive artistic talent. She was painting regularly, truly enjoying the community’s phenomenal art room and classes. When she died, I was invited to collect the many paintings she had spread throughout the community. I donated most of them right back, keeping just a few favorites for family members.

Paula Tachau, 2012

Paula Tachau, 2012

I also decided to step into Mom’s regular Scrabble group – filling in for Mom every Thursday evening so her friends could keep playing. One day recently, my older daughter was home from college for a rare visit. She decided to come with me to play Scrabble. Just that week, a new painting turned up after some redecorating, so we headed to the art room after the Scrabble game to retrieve the painting. It truly struck me as one of Mom’s best: A doe and a fawn sharing a quiet, tender moment in a grassy wooded area. My daughter and I tucked the painting into the trunk and headed home.

When we were just at the foot of our wooded neighborhood, we saw three deer emerging from an open field on our right, bounding across the road, and then hesitating at the unwieldy fence the farmers had built to keep the deer out. The first deer was the largest – she seemed to me to be an elderly doe. She managed to squeeze through the fence and disappear. This left the second doe and the fawn. The fawn was in front: stopping in the middle of the road in confusion: she could not (or would not) go through the fence. The remaining doe turned back into the field on our right and hesitated as well. By this time, we had stopped the car and crept forward as far as we dared, watching the drama unfold and admiring the sweet fawn, which was no more than five feet in front of the car at this point. The little one turned back and forth, clearly torn: “Do I follow the elder one or do I retreat with Mom?”

In an instant, I realized this was the painting come alive. The fawn looked just like the little one in my mother’s painting – many spots and about the same size. When I pointed this out, my daughter immediately agreed and explained that it felt like she was watching herself at her own cross-roads: she has been striving for independence yet reluctant to give up the security represented by her family.

As I have processed this beautiful scene, I have come to feel that the fence could be a metaphor for crossing over. We weren’t really devastated losing Mom (“Bambom”): We were very sad, but we have been moving on and enjoying our lives, and even enjoying the connections she built here in the last few years. We quietly retreated to the field and have been charting a new course with memories of and appreciation for Mom stowed safely in our hearts.

At the same time, my daughter has experienced deep pain and confusion in her short life. At times of breath-robbing anxiety and frustration, she has thought about suicide. But each time, she has called out for help, risen to the occasion, and accepted tools of her choosing to come back to a place of determined enthusiasm. She is now gaining what appears to be a deep-seated confidence, looking forward to an exciting education and career.

What really strikes me is that the doe in our unfolding drama was both wise and safe on the side of the road, showing her child a way to stay engaged and productive and happy. And yet, from where she stood waiting on the edge of the field, the doe must have felt terror infused with a fiery sense of potential failure: there was no guarantee that that crazy moving metal thing with the bright lights would stay where it stopped. The little fawn seemed so vulnerable in the middle of the road.

From my vantage point in the car, that “machine with the bright lights” had two compassionate, alert women in it. We were not about to harm that fawn. We couldn’t control the fawn’s choices, but we silently cheered her on, and we waited until she found her way to safety in the field with her Mom before continuing down the road.

Is it coincidence that the two of us came across three deer on our way home with my mother’s painting stashed in the trunk? Is it coincidence that my mind is now more open than ever to the possibility that I have done ENOUGH by showing my daughter how to navigate tricky roads? Is it coincidence that I gently realized in that moment that things that may seem horrific might actually be under the influence of a beneficent intelligence of some kind?

No matter – semantics, my dear Watson. I am grateful for the gifts. And it brings me great comfort to think that there could be such a thing as mysterious Serendipity.

 

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