Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 13 – The Transitory Fate of Coincidence

What is fate? The dictionary will tell us something like this;

The universal principle or ultimate agency by which the order of things is presumably prescribed; the decreed cause of events; time:

Which is all a bit dry because defining something that is an ephemeral concept is by its own definition, difficult. I have long thought intellectually about the coincidences of meeting people, or more accurately seeing people, especially if this meeting is transitory and unfulfilled. I’m a keen people watcher, not in some sinister voyeuristic way, but as an observer of human activity. Train stations are a fabulous place to observe human activity of all kinds; they are a wonderful kaleidoscope of chaotic human coincidence.

All these people rushing about have lives, lives which are linked to and separated from others by a degree of separation, a theory which states that everyone is on average approximately six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person on Earth, which is an astonishing concept in itself.  

In a way I was part of this theory in 2006 when I travelled by train to Italy to visit friends. Entombed and hopelessly lost in the Paris Metro system I walked past a woman who was similarly lost and unable to make herself understood to an uncommunicative member of Parisian staff. She and I joined forces to extricate ourselves and find our own way to the Gare de Bercy station where the overnight trains to Italy depart.  It turned out she was an opera singer from the Netherlands en-route to Venice for a job interview. Normally she flew, but that day there was a Europe-wide Air Traffic Controllers strike, so like me she travelled overland. As we waited for the train she suggested she purchase some food for us for the journey, which she did, returning just moments before our separate trains were due to depart. In haste we said our goodbyes, bordered our overnight trains and I never saw her again. But like many people I have fleetingly met over the years I often think about her and whether she got the job. I never did know her name but for a few minutes our lives collided and we shared an experience together.

Films and books have long discussed such thoughts. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is of course a well known example of looking into the future. If Ebenezer Scrooge follows this or that path as outlined by his visiting ghost, his future will be redefined for good or bad. The romantic film Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah is another well known exploration of this concept of “what if’s”. Missing her train on the London Underground, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character then embarks on a parallel universe plot, outlining what may have happened if she had caught her train, and what happened if she didn’t. And of course the poet Robert Frost’s poem The Road Less Travelled details the routes we take in life and their consequences.

In reality every action we take has a parallel plot to enact should we choose it. How many times have we heard stories of people who missed their connections to a plane or ship only for some disaster to befall it and all hands are lost or killed? The survivors’ stories are often a powerful example of fate. Many say fate is something we have absolutely no control over, as it is something that supernatural forces direct. But is that true? As intellectual human beings, can we not bend fate to our own will? Intellectual minds far greater than mine will theorise over this forever.

But what really interests me is what I prefer to call the ephemeral side of coincidence, where no actual contact is made but for a brief moment in time there is connectivity. This was something I noticed yesterday whilst driving. I noticed a group of four men on a Welsh golf course. They were on the green, one was putting, one held the flag, two others stood with their putters in hand watching. In our car, myself and Julie and for what can only have been a couple of seconds I watched the first man putting as I drove past. Those four men would probably have known each other. Friends maybe, or colleagues away from the office for a day. The round of golf would have been planned maybe a day or so before and in the morning they would all have left their individual houses  to meet up for their leisurely game. That same morning Julie and I set off from Somerset on our visit to Wales. At around 12 noon our 2 sets of lives which had been separate until yesterday collided in time and space, for the briefest of moments, before separating again for eternity. Today we are all back in our own world, leading our own lives; but for me the memory will linger.
Intent on their game, the golfers would be unaware I had seen them and carried on with their game as Julie and I carried on with our day. Writing about them now in a way could possibly break the unconnected side of this encounter. Maybe one of the golfers will read this blog in years to come and think “was that me he wrote about?” “I remember seeing a black Renault Clio as I held the flag”. I probably think about such things too much, but I do find them intellectually fascinating.

From the cradle to the grave, all of our lives are made up of connections. I am fortunate in that a fair few of my school friends I keep in touch with. But from Agricultural College I have as little an idea of where those students I spent every waking day with are, as I have those Welsh golfers from yesterday. Social media such as Twitter broadens our connections with the wider world, but does it? We tap tap tap into a keyboard, and read a reply. Are we really connecting or does that only happen when we emerge from cyberspace and meet in person? But we should remember, as Robert Frost said of the road ahead;

“I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

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