Sweet Serendipity

One of my favorite movies is the rom-com “Serendipity” in which two young New Yorkers, Jonathan and Sara, meet over a pair of gloves. Within a few minutes of witty repartee the pair feel a spark and consider whether they should be together. Because nothing is ever easy in a movie—and perhaps because young people can be foolish—they part ways, leaving to destiny whether they will find each other again. They write their respective names and numbers in a used book and on a five dollar bill and send those items into the New York chaos. If they find those items, they will take it as a sign they are meant to be together.

Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack in Serendipity, 2001

Serendipity is something I obsess over not infrequently. Specifically, when things work out so well, can we really chalk it up to randomness, or is the universe in control? Recently, on a frigid January morning my husband Gabe and I breakfasted with dear friends who were in town. Driving away, Gabe explained how he had met the man: in college, he by chance attended a party where he by chance met Tom who by chance needed a new roommate. From Tom, Gabe met the neighbors downstairs and from them one can draw a direct line to good friends that have spanned almost four decades. It also led to his coming to Vanderbilt and meeting me. How different would our lives have been, had he not made the simple decision to attend that party.

This is just one example of serendipity in my life. Several decades ago, I was in my first week of a new job in a large corporation. I was intimidated by the work, the culture, and the physical environment itself. Every hallway and every office looked the same. I found myself on the second floor, lost, confused and on the verge of being late for a meeting. Rounding a corner, I ran into a woman named Nancy with Marlo Thomas hair and a yellow linen suit. Her smile was what I needed at the time. She gave me good directions, but it was the casual conversation and friendliness that made me seek her out again. I would linger in her office, drawn to her quick laugh and intelligence and her quiet demeanor that made me feel grounded and understood. Thirty something years later she is one of my closest friends, and together we have laughed, grieved and debated life over countless bottles of wine. I wonder what would have happened had I not ventured down that wrong hallway—had I not met her, out of the hundreds of people there.

Years later, we moved to a new city and I was between jobs and separated from friends and family. I had recently closed my business, my daughters were in school, and I found myself wondering what was next for me. It was a discouraging, frightening time in my life. One day I woke up feeling particularly low—not knowing where to turn or how to make myself feel better. Wandering through the house, gathering toys and scattered shoes, I leaned over to retrieve a newspaper from the hearth. In what was a moment of pure serendipity, I noticed that underneath my thumb was a classified ad—for a job for which I would be hired and which would, to this day, be one of my favorite positions. What if I had not picked up that newspaper?

A party, a hallway, a newspaper. These are trivial examples of the thousands of random occurrences that change our lives in ways big and small. Are they truly random events or part of a master plan? That is the question, isn’t it? I have friends who, when something positive happens, say, “It was God’s plan” or “God’s hand was in that.”

Honestly, when I hear that, I cringe a bit, for I struggle with the thought of God as divine micro-manager. If he can orchestrate good things happening, then how can we not credit him with the bad as well?

Today, sick at home in bed, I reread Leslie Weatherhead’s The Will of God. This book was based on a series of sermons the British Methodist minister gave to his City Temple congregation in London. Weatherhead differentiates between God’s intentional will—that which He has envisioned in His perfect kingdom, God’s circumstantial will—those factors and happenings that happen, like war, and, finally, God’s ultimate will. It is this ultimate will which Weatherhead describes as the goal God reaches “not only in spite of all men may do, but even using man’s evil to further his own plan.”

In other words, free will exists. Wars happen because of nations’ follies. But rather than attribute the war to “God’s will,” Weatherhead asserts that war doesn’t make courage but rather reveals it— something positive coming from something horrible: God’s ultimate will rising from the smoldering ashes.

Weatherhead gives the example of a baby falling from a fifth story window. How can we believe in a benevolent God whose will would be for such a thing to befall a little child? Weatherhead points out that God’s will is that gravity exists. God’s will is that a baby’s precious body is made from flesh and blood. Rereading Weatherhead’s words, I started to rethink that phrase, “God’s hand was in that.” Perhaps we need to adjust the intonation of that sentence. Emphasizing the word hand evokes images of God as puppeteer. But if we adjust the emphasis to be on the word that, we not only accept the bad but open our eyes to find God in the sweetnesses that so often cushion the sorrows. God’s hand was in that.

I imagine that I exhaust my family as I explore such complex topics as serendipity and God’s will at family dinners. But my patient sister-in-law Linda, a quiet woman who couples a sharp intellect with an unwavering faith, reminded me of James 1:17: “Every good thing comes from God” (paraphrased). Perhaps it’s just that simple. Perhaps I spend too much time what if-ing the events of my life, trying to discern meaning behind the random. What if I had boarded that plane that crashed? What if I had left five minutes earlier/later to avoid that accident. What if that job hadn’t been lost? If, if, if. And my husband added one: “What if I had gone to a different party and ended up meeting a rich girl instead of you?” Touché.

It seems the beauty of serendipity lies in accepting the arbitrary and embracing that which surprises and delights us. As Jonathan said in the movie: “Maybe the absence of signs is a sign.” Our lives are comprised of diverted paths, twists, turns and serendipitous occurrences that lead eventually to blessings. Maybe life is lived more fully when we don’t look for meaning in the random but rather revel in where we end up. For when we look back upon our life, surely it will have been enhanced by the friends whom we met in the hallway—not by the oft circuitous journey itself.

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