Serendip Revisited


One night in Norway about three a.m. I had to pee and the only place was an outhouse fifty feet behind the cabin. It was negative something and knee-deep snow, but I got dressed and headed out. I had to wait, though, because at the same time my colleague Joe had the same idea and was already in there. After we both did our thing, we were wide awake so decided to hike up a snowy service road next to the house. That night we saw moose, more stars than I knew existed, and green bands of the aurora borealis bouncing around the sky like a wind-blown towel.

I’m so glad I had to pee.

What profound beauty exists just beyond our comfort zone! What crazy-ass cool new way of starting fires awaits by opening the wrong door!

Like Vincent van Gogh, of course. About thirty years ago I did a lot of work about Vincent. His birthday is Thursday and I wanted to share one of my favorite passages from his letters to his brother Theo:

The earth has been thought to be flat. It was true, and is today, that between Paris and Arles, it is. But science has proven the world is round and nobody contradicts that nowadays. But notwithstanding all of this people persist in believing that life is flat and runs from birth to death. However, life too is probably round, and very superior in expanse and capacity to the hemisphere we know at present. For my part I know nothing of it. I feel more and more that we must not judge God on the basis of this world; it is a study that didn’t come off. What can you do in a study that has gone wrong if you are fond of the artist? You do not find much to criticize; you hold your tongue. But you have a right to ask for something better. It is only a master than can make such a muddle as this, since then we have a right to see the same creative hand get even with itself. And this life of ours, so much criticized and for such good and exalted reasons—we must not take it for anything more than it is, and go on hoping that in some other life we’ll see a better thing than this.

Depressing no doubt, and probably written on his down cycle of mania, but beautiful none the less. At first I dug into van Gogh’s life because I was fascinated by the reality that while alive he was considered not simply a failure, but an embarrassment in the art world, and yet he went on to become one of the most influential artists in history. But what I came away with was a lesson in passion and confidence, in pursuing one’s objective despite criticism and dissent. This isn’t to suggest we run blindly into a pathless wood; but there is value in internal motivation. Van Gogh only wrote letters because he wanted to tell his brother where the money loaned to him was being spent, and while explaining he digressed into philosophy. He only decided to become a painter because he got kicked out of the church where he wanted to be a preacher, fired from his uncle’s art dealership because he didn’t like the patrons’ tastes in art, and kicked out of the academy for disagreeing with the teachers. He only decided to paint because he was too much of a bastard to do anything else.

Naturally this made me think of Horace Walpole.

He was the 4th Earl of Oxford and a man of letters who read Persian fairytales in the 1700s. In his work, “The Three Princes of Serendip,” the heroes consistently make fascinating discoveries while searching for something else on a small island with the Arabic name of Sarandip, later Serendip, known now as Sri Lanka. Walpole coined the word “serendipity” to reference someone who makes a discovery while looking for something else, or in many cases, finding perfection while not looking for anything at all.

We all go looking for one thing and often find something else. It turns out the greatest proof of absolute symmetry in life is the complete randomness of it all. Alexander Fleming sneezed in a Petri dish full of bacteria and discovered penicillin. His famous quote followed: “Nature made penicillin, I just found it. One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.”

My car broke down in the college parking lot and I came in to use a phone and got a job. Changed my life. We got lost on a dead-end road which ended at a river and saw a small sign which said, “Land for sale.” Changed my life again. I went to my spam folder back in 2007 because a cousin sent me pictures I never received and suggested I check there. When I did, under her email was another from someone I was very close to twenty-three years earlier who had found a book of mine and wrote to see how I was.

What’s ironic is it isn’t always the spectacular events which redirect the flow of our existence. Going to Siberia and Spain certainly grows out of who I am and reminds me of what is important in life. But it is the small curves which surprise us into new landscapes.

Life bends and twists and folds back on itself. “You never know” might just be one of the greatest truisms of all time.


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