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Tuesday 19 July 2011

Pretending that Fate Exists

If there is no fate, might there still be an advantage to behaving as though there was?

One afternoon I went to the grocery store to get something for dinner.  There was a good sockeye salmon run on the local river recently, and the store had salmon for half the usual rate.  I went to the produce section.  I usually despair at this point, having few good ideas for vegetables other than just steaming them and serving them beside whatever else I make.  I picked up a bag of green beans, thinking I might stirfry them like my neighbourhood Szechuan restaurant does.

When I got home I took down a Jamie Oliver cookbook for inspiration regarding the salmon.  I often do this with a sense of futility, as the odds that I have all of the ingredients for any recipe are slim.  The first page I turned to involved baking salmon with pesto (which I always have) over a bed of, you guessed, green beans.

Being prone to dissatisfaction when cooking, my impulse was to look further to see whether there was anything else I might make.  I had to stop myself.  “Look, you got that cookbook so you could experiment with Oliver’s ideas, and here’s a golden opportunity.  How much better a hint do you need?”

I do not personally believe that an unseen deity watches over me while I'm cooking, every so often tossing me a message (“Yes, you really are special - and here's what you can do with those green beans”).  Coincidences may seem unlikely, but given an infinite array of opportunities for unlikely events to happen, we all experience at least a coincidence a day.

So when I happen to run into an old friend on the street, or open a magazine at random to an article on something I’ve been thinking of posting about, my underlying belief system dictates:  “This is just a coincidence.  It has no particular meaning or significance to you; you can take advantage or ignore it, whichever you like.”  If I followed this reasoning, I might smile at the friend and carry on with my mission – perhaps a trip to the stationery store.

A person with a New Age-ish belief in fate, or synchronicity, or protective  angels, might think differently.  “The universe has placed this person, this article, this recipe in front of you for a reason.  Your mission is to accept the gift and discover the path that has been laid out for you.”

Logically, this makes little sense.  At least to me.  The reason I found the salmon recipe was not divine intervention. It was because I looked up “salmon” in the index.

But I have discovered that if I ignore these opportunities, continuing on my planned path or seeking what I was originally looking for, I am usually dissatisfied.  Friends who assign deep meaning to such events may suffer my barely-suppressed eye rolls, but they often have more interesting days.  “I started a conversation with a tourist on the bus who happened to be going to the same park I was and who knew a friend of mine; naturally I ditched my plan and hung out with them for the afternoon – I’m visiting them next time I visit Portland.”

I don’t think that the superior outcomes of following “fate” demonstrate its validity.  But living as though there was a such a thing as fate – as though the universe steps in to give you a hand now and then – enables us to take advantage of shifting avenues of opportunity and ultimately create a more interesting and less predictable life.

No need to take up crystal-gazing, then, or devote one’s life to the vagaries of the I Ching.  It seems fine to maintain a firm skepticism of the magical.  But the art of the magician is best appreciated without trying too hard to see how the tricks are done, and life can sometimes be best appreciated by acting as though we believed in fate, even though we might not.

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