“Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.”—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Ever since I read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray I have wondered how I would get older. Though I am certainly an “old soul,” I read the book between the time I received my bachelor’s and when I started graduate school, so it’s not like I was actively worried about getting older. And anyway, how does one worry about something that is going to happen no matter what, unless you die young, in which case nothing matters? The old joke “being alive is better than the alternative” never seems funnier and at the same time less funny as the years pile up. Perhaps it’s glib to say “it’s funny,” but the cold knowledge that life for we lucky middle-class types is better than death ought to serve as some comfort as we age. Ought to, but doesn’t, because the truth remains: nobody escapes the Great Sleep.
Not long after Dorian Gray was published F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was about a man who came into the world as an 80-year-old and gradually got younger as he got older, eventually turning into a baby before he, we assume, died, while living with his son. Unlike Wilde, whose book is ostensibly about a deal Gray makes with the devil to stay young, Fitzgerald was on to something.
Still, The Portrait of Dorian Gray stuck with me. After I read the book I longed for some alternative to the way we lived—not that we would be immortal or stay young forever, per se. But everything about life seemed out of sequence. As we learn life’s lessons we are less able to apply them to our advantage; all we could really do is smile and shake our head at our newly-gained perspective. The dream Fitzgerald suggested in “Benjamin Button”—living life backwards—had much more appeal, and had far greater potential, than merely never aging. In Fitzgerald’s alternative universe, all those hard-learned lessons, all those things we wished we knew when we were younger—all that would be accessible to us when we could actually use them. Regrets would fade, happiness would go up, a utilitarian society where everything had its uses would bloom, and those experiences that have little value outside of their value while we are in them would transmogrify into priceless treasures.
If only! What would be of most use is an option not available (but one that would be to Benjamin Button)—that of sending messages from our older selves to our younger selves. Unlike our elders offering their unwanted advice, at least our own voice would be familiar, maybe wanted, maybe yearned for. Only would it? As someone looks back on their life and the person they used to be, it is often—perhaps overwhelmingly so—the case they do not recognise that younger version, and we are often not kind to who and what we used to be. And if we could manage to send words of wisdom and warning to our younger selves, it is just as likely we’d ignore them, too. Growing older is not only difficult but it’s also inefficient. When we say “youth is wasted on the young” we could just as easily (and more accurately) say “wisdom is wasted on the old.”
What are we to do? Biologically the system is locked; we can age better and slow down the process somewhat, but that’s it. From a Darwinian perspective, however, it would seem that to optimise our chances of survival we ought to consider not only what we do but also when we do it. In other words, do the impossible. Since we can’t manipulate time and space (yet), at the very least we can pay attention to what has come before, examine what others have done in their lives. I am not referring to whatever antiquated sociological advice older generations offer; I am not interested in some 80-year-old dinosaur talk about the “good old days.” But that is not to the say an older generation is so rooted in an imaginary past that they have grown useless. Almost every culture has a certain reverence for older people (though here, as at so many other levels, The US is out of step; we simply do not honour older people the way we should). And almost everyone everywhere has a grandfather or grandmother, a great aunt or a great uncle, with priceless stories at their command. If we don’t have someone like that in our lives, we have access to them. As long as we can avoid the land mines of the “good old days,” we have invaluable resources to withdraw from—the resources of lives actually lived, of choices made and regretted. While I don’t necessarily think we learn the most from our failures—our triumphs contain at least the potential for one powerful lesson: learning to succeed—we do have unique opportunities to grow from them.
But it must be intelligent growth. If we seek growth for its own sake rather than seek out smart growth, we will fail every time. Unlimited, constant growth, like some diabolical perpetual motion machine created by Milton Friedman, is not possible, whether it’s the GDP or human satisfaction. Growth will eventually reach a plateau, one never high enough for our market-based world, and then it will ebb and flow. And what is wrong with reaching a pinnacle and staying there to enjoy the view? Much, if we are to believe the common denominator of capitalism all the world over: eternal, ever-expanding, never-shrinking growth. It’s not a sustainable way to manage human beings and our own ever-expanding, never-shrinking limitations.
Which brings me back, rather indirectly, to the idea of chance. When I left for Ireland in early October I knew it was late in the day to think about starting over, but it was in Ireland that many of my oldest and strongest convictions echoed more than before. It is dangerous to see things the way you want to see them rather than see them for what they are, but fortunately my naturally skeptical mind does not often suffer from confirmation bias. In fact it is safe to say my skepticism has stolen more actual opportunities than any misguided optimism has wrongly encouraged me to pursue. Ireland, even more than Europe in general, had come to represent all that I had not done, all that I could not have or could only attain with an exorbitant opportunity cost. There was, as the saying goes, a non-zero chance I would never return to the US, or if I did return it would be to say my goodbyes and head back to Ireland as soon as I could. I knew that danger before I left, and my wife urged me to leave behind the rose-coloured glasses—glasses I have never owned, but have long given up trying to convince her or anyone else of that truth.
I am no fatalist, and I have to resist the urge to punch those well-meaning people who say “things happen for a reason.” Even the strongest of our beliefs face pressure, however, and there are times when we can see a situation, not only long after the event but also as it is happening, and we find ourselves wrapped up in something that can only be explained away by that most slippery of ideas, fate. Another way of looking at fate is to see it as a dream realised. We suspect we know our fate, and we attach it to a dream that has emerged from a cocoon deep within our soul. And a dream is nothing if not the product of a systemic stubbornness. I am as guilty as the next dreamer. In another lifetime I used to dream about a chance romantic encounter on a European train. The thought underwrote my unpopular (to put it mildly) opinion that sex had nothing to do with love, commitment, and monogamy, and thus, by natural affinity, marriage. That what really mattered was living and feeling alive, and what could be more intoxicating than falling in love while riding on a train from Paris to Geneva, even if—especially if—it couldn’t last? Three days in Paris with a stranger you would never see again. What had that to do with marriage? The mistake, I learned, was not that I was keeping this dream alive (in an inert, abstract form), but that I shared it with the person I was married to. Who could I trust more than my spouse?
Love not only blinds us but it also apparently renders us incapable of rational thought at those times we need it the most. Because of course many men and women not only see topics like infidelity differently, but men are also stupid enough to prove this point to their spouses by telling them how it’s no big deal to meet and sleep with a stranger on a European train—and then we are surprised when our protestations of “I’m not saying I want to do it!” are not believed. Our dreams, even our waking ones, don’t subscribe to logic, and so my fantasy of a chance encounter on a train, incredibly, still exists, even as I know the mere thought of it drives my wife crazy. You’re right, by the way. I am an idiot.
And on that note, gentle reader, I am pleased to inform you my dream of a chance encounter did come true in Ireland, but not the way I would have expected, and not in a way that was necessarily healthy, the presence of romance or not. After a few days in Dublin I headed west, toward Galway and Dingle and the Aran Islands. I arrived in Galway on a rainy Wednesday evening near sunset, and to certain sensibilities there is nothing so romantic as rain hitting cobbled pavements lit up by the golden glow of street lamps as the sky turns from ash to inky black. It is a small way to see infinity, if not in a grain of sand then in a concatenation of it in the form of compressed concrete. I was smitten. Fate, thy name is Galway.
My plans were to take a ferry to Inishmore on Thursday, and though it was the year 2019 and Ireland is a thoroughly modern country, I needed actual tickets to board the ferry, tickets I could not print out at the ferry terminal but that needed to be collected from an office in Galway. It is true I could have done this early in the morning without fear of missing the ferry—at that time of year there was not much risk of the ferry selling out—but why not be proactive for a change? And being the responsible adult that I am, that’s what I did, stopping at the office on the way to my hotel and purchasing the tickets. It was a proud moment; perhaps I could yet master this adulting thing.
That came crashing down later at my hotel, as I dug desperately and in vain in my luggage for the proactively-purchased tickets. So that on the morrow, when I hurled myself out of bed at six a.m. and made my way back to the ticket office, humbled anew, freshly wet from a vigorous rain front sweeping thru Galway, I could only hope I could get new tickets. By some miracle of record-keeping done without a computer (!), I was easily able to get the tickets printed—and I didn’t even have to pay for them. And I was able to shake dry my jacket (knowing it would get drenched again soon), and I was able to procure a map of the islands I hadn’t noticed the night before. The bus that would take us to the ferry terminal an hour away was but a five-minute walk from the ticket office. Things were looking good.
(It turns out I did not lose the original tickets. As I packed to return to Seattle they turned up in one of the 45,953 crevices of my backpack. If I exaggerate the number of crevices I do so on the low end.)
So I back-pocketed the new tickets and, when I turned to leave, the black Old Navy puffy that had been suffocating me for five days slipped out of my grasp and fell to the ground. As I bent down to pick it up, an older man who had been behind me in line said, with an extra urbane English accent, “You will need that on the islands today. We didn’t pick a great day to head over, did we?” I looked at him more closely as I stood up. He looked like he had jumped out of an advertisement for L.L. Bean. A tidy beard surrounded his polite English smile and occupied most of his face, and a pair of rounded glasses filled the rest of it nicely. He wore a neat blue rain jacket, crisp tan khakis, and a grey tweed paddy cap. In his left hand he held a yellow umbrella that was as long as I was short, and in his right he clasped a thick rucksack. If I didn’t know he was heading to an island, I’d have thought his plans involved hitchhiking. But what struck me more than the man was the way he had spoken: with casual authority. He might have had an English accent, but it seemed he knew the islands. When I responded that I actually preferred rain and wind to sun and calm, he looked at me more keenly. “Let’s walk to the bus and you can tell me if that’s still true.”
The man, it turned out, knew the islands better than I could have imagined. He did not reside on Inishmore now, but once, as a lad of 22, he had lived there almost a year. He kept extensive notes and journals, wrote copious and detailed letters, and thirty years later it all coalesced into a book, a memoir of his days on Inishmore, written from the perspective of his 50-year-old self, giving the book a mixture of truth and fiction ahead of its time (the book was published in 2001). And though he hadn’t returned to the Aran Islands as often as he wanted following his initial 11-month stay, he tried to get over as often as he could. This particular visit, he said, would be the first in five years.
But I learned this gradually, on the quickest one-hour bus ride ever. I discovered he was a retired English literature professor from Exeter University, and that he had also written poetry, and in fact had published several books of poems, all of which remain in print today (as does his travel memoir). Who did he read, I asked? What did he teach? Who were his favourite writers? Did he teach one of the most famous Exeter alumni ever, J.K. Rowling? “Oh, did she go there,” he inquired. A daft smile. “I could never bring myself to read her books, though my daughter loved them.” Oh, you have a daughter? How old is she? Where does she live? You’ve got grandchildren? How wonderful! How long will you be staying on Inishmore? Just five days? Lucky you, I have to go back tonite. You’ll never believe it, but I’m a writer. Hahaha, no, you’ve not read my writing unless you read ESPN.com years ago or played certain video games on PlayStation or, even worse, subscribed to a business magazine published in Northern California. Yes, I am working on a novel, how did you know? Yeah, I suppose it is a bit of a cliché, an American writer heading overseas for inspiration. But tell me more about you and your book about the islands. Can I buy it in Galway or Dublin? That’s ok, I don’t mind special ordering it. Who do I like to read? Oh, what a question. Don’t think me a snob, but I prefer so-and-so and such-and-such. I do like poetry, mainly Shelley and Eliot and Larkin and Dickinson. Don’t like Shelley? Really? I love Shelley. Yes, I know he was a terrible human, but that doesn’t mean his art isn’t beautiful. Why did you not stay on the islands when you were younger? Oh, of course, there’s always a girlfriend. No ordinary girlfriend? What do you mean? Oh! You married her! That’s amazing. But why… why not go back permanently, now you’re retired? Right, family obligations. Oh yes, I get that, I didn’t say, my fight-or-flight arriving not on the day I was to depart Ireland but a week before.
I could have talked to him forever. It was more than just the common fund of literature and travel and family. More than his dry English wit, which I never tire of. It was all that, yes, and yet what I also saw was something I see every so often in certain men of a certain age: a father figure. I had heard that the Irish were wary of oversharing Americans, and even though he was English and I am not typically an oversharer, I very much wanted to be one. Like the danger of going to Ireland in the first place, I saw a danger in opening up, more than the usual vulnerability we all feel. But I kept silent, I pushed down the wreck of my soul further and further from the surface. Something of this struggle must have shown, some visible fissure, for when we boarded the ferry, I immediately said good-bye and headed for a seat away from him. “OK, pleasure chatting with you.” Surprised. I was surprised, too, as I usually am during these moments—surprised how much I still missed my dad, all these years later.
As I reflect on the experience now, two months on, I laugh at myself a little. What he must have thought of me! An over-educated-yet-ignorant American, trying to cut a pathetic romantic-leaning figure, still grieving something unknown to the man, trying to impress him by talking about Shelley (Mary and Percy) and Bronte (Charlotte and Emily) and Wordsworth and Joyce, like a star-struck middle-aged teenager in the throes of a literary crush. I also marveled at the cruel timing of things. If I had met him, or someone like him, when I was younger—when I was, say, 22, his age on his first trip to the Arans—how would my life have turned out? Meeting him in early middle age seemed again to mock the idea of fate. What could I glean from an encounter with a man who has lived a life I suddenly wished I had not only lived but also knew it was too late to live now? That’s not fate, it’s annoying. It may have been better, in the long run, for me to have lived the real dream—that of having a chance romantic encounter—rather than this modified version, which filled me with regret and a quiet humming sadness while at the same time utterly charming and disarming me.
It was beautiful, all the more so because of its unexpectedness, but it called to mind that sense our lives occur out of order. Some of the most memorable experiences I have had arrived at the wrong time—I was too young, too old. Too poor. Or too married. As stand-alone incidents it is true these events carry tremendous power, including meeting the man on the ferry. (The Man On The Ferry. I should get on that for a story idea.) Their strength was such that they had the potential to completely upend my life, but instead they merely interrupted it, amounting, in the end, to a series of missed chances, fates misaligned. Chance, as opposed to fate, cannot be anticipated, even if the anticipation of one’s fate coming true is illusory. When something happens it happens, and there is no way to prepare for it. Chance can also contain an immense power and, because it is not pre-ordained by fate, it has more agency. It separates itself from the banal and marks itself as pure disruption, neither good nor bad, a Nietzschean nightmare. As Kundera implies in his remarks on chance, unlike the daily churn of our existence chance cannot be muted. We have no choice but to hear it, to bear witness, and it’s not a question of whether we act or don’t act. The question is when it speaks to us. No matter how much 40 is the new 20 or some other such nonsense, what we have done in the years leading up to the “new 20” matters. Chance cannot erase our decisions up to that point.
Would that we could re-live the one life we know we have and reconstruct it not with things that didn’t happen but with things that did, arranging them in such a way that we could harvest their bounty not only for the moment but also beyond. Instead we are left with the world as it is, left, at the end of the day, alone, to absorb our experiences and to wonder “what if” as we wander.