By Doris Lund
SERENDIPTY.” The word sounds like a rare herb or a pale-pink flower. In fact, “the gift for making happy, accidental discoveries of valuable things you weren’t looking for.” As Columbus might have reported back to Isabella, “well… uh… we didn’t exactly find India, but there was this other promising piece of land!”
Columbus, in fact, never realized he’d discovered a whole new continent. But the point was (and is) not to go home empty-handed. Life is a disorderly journey. Much of the time we never get where we’re going , never find what we hope to find. Yet still, like Columbus, we can stay open to the new and the unexpected. And thus always be ready to discover something. Indeed we can make our entire life a voyage of discovery.
A businessman I know owns a sloop called Serendipity. It’s aptly named. “I’m a driver at work,” he told me. “but there’s no need to hold close to the wind when I sail. I like to run before the wind, and I’ll often change course on whim. If I don’t get where I was going, well…. I love putting into strange harbors.”
I thought of my own sailing days then, and realized that “running with the wind” had given me some of my most memorable experiences of serendipity. Like the time my little racing sloop started to plane in a glorious autumn breeze. I was so thrilled I kept right on flying, past all my usual island stopping places, and eventually found a deserted cove where I dropped anchor and jumped in-no clothes-for the greatest swim of my life. It was October 24. The New England water looked and felt like chilled champagne.
We think of scientists as being orderly folk. But many of the world’s major invention’s would not be with us today if scientists hadn’t kept tripping falling fumbling-and then noticing what happened. The famous splash of acid on Alexander Graham Bell’s pants marks almost the exact moment when the telephone was finally invented. The clumsy spill of gum rubber and sulfur on a hot stove led almost the exact moment when the telephone was finally invented. The clumsy spill of gum rubber and sulfur on hot stove led almost instantly-via serendipity-to Charles Goodyear’s understanding, at long last, of how to vulcanize rubber. As Winston Churchill put it, “Many men stumble over discoveries, but most of them pick themselves up and walk away.”
Serendipity can be a scientist’s miracle, yes, but how do I discover something that will help me make it through a dull Monday at home? How can I “grow” my own serendipity? Here are some rules I have found useful:
Cultivate awareness, “Suppose you fall in love with a girl who drives a blue VW” “My son Mark said recently. “Suddenly you start seeing blue VWs all over the place. It’s not that there really are more of them. It’s just that you’re more aware.”
The painter Rico Lebrun used to cultivate this awareness by daily walking the 12 blocks from his Los Angeles home to his studio determined to see something new on every trip-not an easy thing to do. But Lebrun knew what every true artist has always recognized: that you need the new, the surprising, breaking in on you, disrupting you, shaking you up from time to time, if you are to push on, to grow.
Mend your nets. Since serendipity is frequently a side effect of disappointment or adversity. I find myself thinking of our need for “nets”-nets or loyalty, love, conviction, faith, friendship. Such nets must be kept mended so we can bounce back from the slips of outrageous fortune. No one person can possibly be expected to answer all the wants of another. We need many enterprises, too to carry us through dark nights or gray days when we must be alone. We need to be enthralled by so many different pursuits-interests, sports, avocations, whatever-that we always have another net if one fails us. “Whenever-that we always have another net if one fails us. “When my husband died,” a friend of mine recalled, “it was dancing that pulled me through. I’d always wanted to be a dancer, and I found it was still something I loved.” The “net” that saved her had been woven years before-and was there to catch her when a sudden blow knocked her off the wire.
Turn your pint a gallon. “Only what we partly know already inspires us with the desire to now more” wrote William James. He called this “apperception”-masses of ideas already present in the mind through which new experience is perceived and organized.
It’s like going to a well to draw water with different-size buckets. Some people have only a “pint” of apperception. Uncurious they have not broadened their minds; so they can take in only a fraction of what they experience. Other people have gallons of apperception; curiosity and wonder drive them on; they constantly make connections.
Sometimes, when we can barely cope, when we feel trapped or stymied, a “serendipity” suddenly appears and shows us a new path. It’s not something we were looking for because we didn’t know what we were looking for – but in every case we were looking! Serendipity comes not to the person who is self-satisfied and uncurious, but to the person who adventures. A hundred adventures that seem without purpose, a hundred miscellaneous interests without immediate value-these are the gallons of apperception in which serendipity thrives.
Trust the current. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune,” Shakespeare wrote. I suppose today we would say “go with the flow.” Either way, there is something akin to optimism in serendipity an attitude of trusting the forces of biological life and social circumstance which after all, transcend us.
At 65, my father paid a visit to Indiana University’s renowned president emeritus William Lowe Bryan. The old man had a glow in his eyes as he greeted his former student. “How is it to be 92?” my father asked. “Don, said President Bryan gently, “life is a flood that mounts. Go with it!” of course, you can never be sure where the wave of aging will carry you, but with serendipity you may land on some fascinating shore. Perhaps the most serendipitous discovery of all is not the finding of unknown continents, but the landfall of the soul once it has found a new hoe among new ideas.
Is there a mystical element in serendipity’s magic? I don’t know. But there have been occasions in my life when serendipity’s intervention seemed, if not divine, at least as welcome as a gift from heaven.
My last most precious instance of serendipity occurred a year ago December. Christmas was upon us and once again I found it a tie of both cheer and sadness. The joy of having three children coming home was mixed with the pain of the fourth child’s absence. It had been seven years since Eric died at 22. I miss him every day but I miss him most during the holidays. On this occasion I was feeling wretchedly low, but still determined to get on with the decorating and the packages. I would leave nothing out: no ceremony, no present, no tinsel or wrapping.
Now I needed one small box to hold a present of jewelry. I had none. It was too late to go to a store so I hunted. I rummaged everywhere-in the attic the basement in drawers that hadn’t been opened in months. Then, in my own dresser, I found a box at last. It was the right size and empty-except for a piece of cotton.
I lifted the cotton and there it was; a note from Eric! I’d never found it before. He had tucked it under the bracelet that was his last Christmas gift to me. How lovely that it had been saved for this moment when I needed it so much. In his lively, unmistakable handwriting, the words fairly jumped off the tiny scrap of paper.
“Dear Mom,” he wrote. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Merry Christmas! Eric.”