Tuesday, February 09, 2010


It's easy to see why it is that so many people believe that Everything Happens For A Reason™.

"Everything Happens For A Reason," they say, especially after you've just told them a bit of bad news.

"I fell down some stairs and shattered my kneecap," you might say.

"Oh, that's terrible!" they exclaim. And then they add, "But, you know, Everything Happens For A Reason."

And you can't argue with them by asking, "What possible, sensible reason could there be for me shattering my kneecap?" because it usually just starts a discussion that you can't win about the motives of some god, God, the universe, Fate, or whatever Big Controlling Influence they happen to subscribe to.

Our brains are hard-wired to look for patterns. We see them everywhere, every day. And sometimes, we see them when they aren't there (pareidolia with maybe some apophenia added, to taste).

A perfect case in point is what just happened to me during lunch, and I found myself actually looking for the chain of coincidences that led to it. Because I couldn't help myself; it's human nature. :)

Last night, I decided to have chili from Los Arcos for dinner. I love their chili, and it's quiet and never crowded, and makes a great place to read.

As a result, I stayed up a little later than normal because my stomach was slightly upset. (I love their chili, but it doesn't always love me.)

Before I went to bed, I shoved a few unread books into my bag so I would have a choice of what new book to start today.

As a result of the late bedtime, I slept an hour into my alarm this morning.

As a result, I ended up getting breakfast late, and thence to work late.

As a result, I decided to have a late lunch, because tonight I'm going to my writers group meeting, and will therefore have a late dinner, as well.

At 12:30, when I left for lunch, I grabbed a book on writing from my bag, thinking it would be a good book to start.

In my car, I decided on a whim to go somewhere I don't often go, because it's a good fifteen minutes from work. And they have mango pie. :)

I arrived at the restaurant and ordered my food, then sat down and began reading.

At a nearby table was a guy diligently writing on a yellow legal pad. After he finished, he got up and started cramming his stuff into a backpack. As he did this, he happened to glance over in my direction.

And saw the book I was reading. Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith. He apologized for the intrusion and asked me how it was. I told him I was on page two and had no idea, yet.

He told me a couple of writing books he had read. I had read both of them. I countered with another couple. He had read those.

He writes screenplays. He asked me if I knew of a decent writing group. I told him about the two I attend.

We exchanged names and mnemonic devices ("I'm Jeff Lastname," he said. "Jambalaya Jeff. What do you like that starts with a 'g'?" And without thinking about it too hard, I said "Gumbo, in keeping with your theme." Thus, I am "Gumbo Gary." I think you probably had to be there....)

I fully expect to see him at least once at the Forum Barnes & Noble on Tuesday night. Probably not tonight (for it is Tuesday as I write this), but maybe soon.

Now, people who believe that Everything Happens For A Reason might be inclined to make more of it than there is. All those seemingly random things that had to happen to get me into a seldom-visited restaurant at an odd time of day and reading the one book of six that I picked up that had to do with writing. And for him to notice it. And for him to have the moxie (Do people use the word 'moxie' anymore? If not, they should.) to speak to a total stranger. And, for that matter, to get him into that restaurant at that time of day.

It must have happened For A Reason. Someone or something—some outside influence—must have had some purpose in setting up all of those seemingly random coincidences.

Nah. It was just that: a series of random events that only take on significance from hindsight. If I hadn't met him at the restaurant, I would not have thought twice about all those seemingly (because they are) random occurrences.

Because that's really the whole point, here. No one—well, no one in their right mind, at any rate—would decide to have chili for dinner and think, "Aha! This is setting off a pattern of coincidences which will lead me to something significant!" Down that path lies insanity, I fear. Or The Celestine Prophecies, which amounts to the same thing. :)

What brought this all to mind was the last thing he said as he left the restaurant. "I don't believe in coincidences. Everything Happens For A Reason. I was supposed to run into you, today!"

And while I don't subscribe to that belief, at least it's harmless. :)

And who knows? I suppose I could be wrong. Maybe Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, or Urania were bored and had nothing better to do. Maybe if you plot out all the subtle occurrences that conspired to get us both into that restaurant, it spells out a complex move in a chess-like game for some vast, alien intelligence that spans megaparsecs, and we're merely the pawns on the cosmic chess board.

But I'm gonna stick with 'random' and 'coincidental.' Your mileage may vary. :)

1 comment:

Julie said...

I think the "Everything Happens For A Reason" crowd just does not want to face the existential emptiness of realizing that there are no mysterious forces in the Universe, because they need things "to make sense." Correlation does not equal causation, any logic class will teach you. Doctors used to believe that stomach ulcers were caused by being a "type A" personality, because stress increased acid secretion. Only in the 1990s did they figure out that 90% of gastric ulcers were caused by a bacteria! Looking for patterns is usually an evolutionary advantage for our brain, but when we see patterns where there are none we can be led astray (religion is an obvious example).