I read a quote recently that really stuck with me. It’s from, “The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor,” by John Barth. It says, “You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You must set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings… serendipitously.” Why did the quote resonate? Well, that takes some explanation.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the word Serendib derives from the Old Persian name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. As you might have surmised from the quote, it’s also the accepted etymological, albeit anecdotal, root of the word, “serendipity.” Yeah, I know, that’s a lot to unpack. Don’t worry about that part. Just focus on the word.
To the romantically minded, serendipity is sometimes considered a confluence of events leading to a positive, yet unexpected conclusion. You move toward a destination because you think it’s the right one. But, through some accidental or unanticipated turn of events, you end up somewhere better. Some might call it destiny or attribute divine intervention of some kind. For me, serendipity seems anything but arbitrary or supernaturally willed.
In my experience, nothing is random, but nor is it the result of some paranormal influence. Our lives, good or bad, are all a series of decisions based on the situations in which we find ourselves, our responses, and the actions of others. That’s a long-winded way of saying you’re in charge. Serendipity can’t be anticipated, which makes it a very different concept from karma, although some people get the two confused.
Karma comes from the Hindu and Buddhist belief that the sum of a person’s actions in various states of existence decides their fate in future existences. Or, put more colloquially, it’s a destiny set in motion by cause and effect. For example, if you do something bad to Joe, intentionally or not, something bad will happen to you in return.
Sorry, but I just can’t believe that’s how things work. The whole concept implies there’s some force, somewhere, keeping score and dishing out punishments based on behavior. Doesn’t that sound a lot like religion – or Santa Clause? He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. Do something bad and you get a lump of coal. Do something good and you get rewarded. The biggest problem with this way of thinking is that good and bad can be subjective. What’s good for you might not be such for me. Who decides and whose side are they on? But serendipity usually implies a positive outcome – and it starts with you.
Here’s an example. Two years into my college career, I changed majors and schools, which forced me to abandon a fully funded scholarship. To continue, I had to figure out how to pay for my education. One day I was reading through the college newspaper and saw an ad that read, “Staff Writers Wanted.” “I can do that,” I thought. At least, I hoped I could. I applied, took a writing test, and was hired, all on the same day. It was an odd job for an engineering student, but I took it.
Over the next two years, I would advance from a pay-per-piece staff writer to a features editor and finally senior editor during my last year at that school. A single decision based on necessity eventually resulted in nearly four decades of opportunity and it was all my fault.
My parents inspired me to use all my skills to support myself. My grade school teachers kept me interested in reading and writing. The staff supervisor at the college paper recognized some rough talent and offered to teach me what I didn’t know – and I was willing to learn. But, ultimately, my “destiny” was all my own making. My serendipitous conclusion was a lifelong career that resulted from a leap in a totally different direction from my educational path.
Every journey starts with a single step, a conscious choice. But serendipity comes from recognizing opportunity, or at least taking a risk. It’s a willingness to move in an unexpected direction based on hopeful inspiration. Great things can happen if we are open to changing course, sometimes even in the most unfamiliar waters.
Gery Deer is a Greene County resident and columnist. He can be reached at www.gldcommunications.com.