“Sometimes life drops blessings in your lap without lifting a finger. Serendipity, they call it.” —Charlton Heston (1923-2008), American actor and political activist
A week ago I published a blog post titled, “The Road to Serendipity,” on this blog. I’d like to continue with that subject one more time.
How do we cultivate the art of finding what we’re not seeking? “Say what?” you ask. That question is posed in a 2016 opinion piece published in The New York Times titled, “How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity,“ by Pagan Kennedy, columnist, pioneer of the 1990s zine movement, and author of eleven books including “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change The World.”
Plenty of us seem to be in a constant rush to get what we want or what we think we want from life (just look at the millions of people who regularly play the lottery hoping to be the next big winner), but what about finding what we aren’t seeking? Pagan Kennedy notes the following in her opinion piece mentioned above:
A surprising number of the conveniences of modern life were invented when someone stumbled upon a discovery or capitalized on an accident: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging. Many blockbuster drugs of the 20th century emerged because a lab worker picked up on the “wrong” information.
While researching breakthroughs like these, I began to wonder whether we can train ourselves to become more serendipitous. How do we cultivate the art of finding what we’re not seeking? (Quote source here.)
Serendipity is defined as “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident; good fortune; luck” (quote source here); and “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way” (quote source here.) In fact, it finds us in all kinds of surprising ways.
Training ourselves to become more serendipitous, as Kennedy suggests, is to open ourselves up to new ways of seeing the world in which we live. For example, a chemist named Roy Plunkett experienced immense frustration while inadvertently inventing Teflon in 1938 when he was hoping to create something totally different; and Percy Spencer, an engineer and electronics genius, was fiddling with a microwave-emitting magnetron in 1945 when he felt a strange sensation in his pants. Spencer paused and found that a chocolate bar in his pocket had started to melt, and it lead to the invention of the microwave oven (source of both stories here).
While most of us will never invent–or invent by accident–anything like Teflon or the microwave oven, we can train ourselves to see the serendipitous in our everyday lives. For example, in my experience of writing blog posts for over eight years now, I can honestly say that from the beginning I’ve never been sure what I was going to write about until I sat down at my laptop, opened up a new blank blog post page, and starting searching the internet for interesting topics and articles. And I can’t begin to tell you all that I’ve learned in my eight years of doing that (and, I now have almost 600 blogs posts on my regular blog, Sara’s Musings, that I started in 2010, and over 30 posts so far on this blog that I started a few months ago in April 2018).
Serendipity is everywhere when we train ourselves to see it, or rather when we make room for it in our lives. It is acquiring a “sense of wonder” again that most of us had as children, but outgrew as adults. It’s a “stop and smell the roses” type of moment that gives color and surprise to our everyday and sometimes humdrum lives. It’s the spark that keeps us growing even into old age.
Close to a couple of decades ago I came across a book titled, “I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology,” by Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), a Polish-born American Rabbi “considered by many to be one of the most significant Jewish theologians of the 20th century, who finds just the right words to startle the mind and delight the heart” (quote source here.) One of his more famous quotes is this quote:
“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.” (Quote source here.)
I loved that book, and I lost it several years ago when I lost over a thousand other books when I had to move back to another state after losing a job I had just been hired for seven months previously, and I couldn’t afford to move all of those books as well as most of my other possessions back to the state I where I had previously lived. But since that time and the decade that has followed, my own sense of wonder has grown exponentially, and it has widened the world in which I live in ways I could have never imagined, but it came through the door of adversity when I lost my job almost a decade ago and I never found another job.
Serendipity . . . .
Abraham Joshua Heschel was known as a “Prophet’s prophet, who aimed through his writing and teaching to shock modern people out of complacency and into a spiritual dimension” (quote source here). Here is a little background information on him:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a philosopher and civil rights activist best known for his writings on ethics and mysticism. Born into a family of Hasidic rabbis in Warsaw, Poland, he was called to the spiritual life at a young age. In 1939, weeks before the Nazi invasion, Herschel fled to London and then New York City. His mother and sisters died in the Holocaust, a tragedy that greatly shaped Heschel’s theology; most significantly his conviction that people can choose to live in a state of constant awe and gratitude, and act alongside God to create a better world. [It was] a belief that led Heschel to march alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Selma, of which he famously said, “I felt my legs were praying.” Heschel’s words continue to spur new generations to live in radical amazement. (Quote source here.)
It was through the door of his own adversity that shaped Heschel’s theology and view of the world. Here is another quote by him:
“I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.” (Quote source here.)
Rabbi Heschel intentionally saw the serendipitous in life. It is that sense of wonder, that sense of surprise, that keeps us motivated towards the good and not the evil that surrounds us in this world (as mentioned above in Heschel’s quote).
Think about a time a casual remark or random encounter set you thinking in a new direction. Or a web search for “personal learning network” led you to an hour spent learning about community management. Or remember the time a happenstance event set you on a new career path or a college major change….
Sometimes life thrusts it upon us… I learned about web design in a grad course suddenly staffed with a geeky pinch-hitter instructor who took the “technology in training” topic off in an unexpected direction. So far that course has led me to the publication of six books—and my current job.
Often serendipitous learning happens via “spinoff learning”—we’re learning one thing and happen to learn something else along the way… I have found that years of tweeting has made the writing in my eLearning designs much tighter and more concise. My friend Marlo learned about making cookies, which led to her opening her own company, which led her to learning about web design. Broader? An improvisation coach says improv taught her empathy….
Many people describe their moments of accidental, serendipitous learning as “stumbling” over an answer or idea. So let’s give them things to stumble over. Encourage exploration beyond the traditional constraints of a course or other learning intervention…. (Quote source here.)
The English language has many interesting words including “serendipity”. A perfect use of serendipity is to describe a situation where a person is pursuing something and stumbles upon an even greater find or fortune–one that was completely different from their original pursuit. Its actual meaning is “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought after and by accident.” The origin is from a novel written by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) where the Three Princes of Serendip possessed this faculty. The world would prefer to call it “chance, good fortune or luck”. As Christians, we know it as God’s will or His plan. (Quote source here.)
I’m not sure that I had an “original pursuit” in mind when I first embarked on my 20-year career in higher education when I was completing my master’s degree years ago, but that was the direction my career took right up until I lost that job I referred to above almost a decade ago that brought my career to an abrupt end (although I didn’t know it at the time), and that has lead me in a completely different direction then I ever could have possibly foreseen. That new direction has included the world of long term unemployment with it’s various financial and housing challenges that continue to this day.
However, as pressing as the effects that losing my last job has had on my circumstances over the past decade, it has opened up a new world that I was unaware of, and it was also only a little over a year after I lost my last job that I started my first blog as a way to fill some of my time and journal my experiences with long-term unemployment. Had it not been for my circumstances (e.g., long term unemployment), that blog never would have seen the light of day.
One of my life long dreams has been to be a published writer. The closest I ever came to it before I started my blog back in 2010 was a few “letters to the editor” that were published in local newspapers on various topics; a few newsletters I put together at places where I was employed over the years, and a published article on the subject of adult illiteracy in a professional journal when I was in my doctoral fellowship (in adult education) which was co-authored with two others, along with various research papers I wrote in college and grad school. I also did a lot of “business” type writing in my work, but I never did anything creative with it.
However, at one point I wanted to be a writer so bad that when I first applied to work on a master’s degree to the state university where I had received my bachelor’s degree in art and design a few years earlier, I applied to work on a master’s degree in journalism, hoping it might open up a door in the publishing business. However, due to the fact that my bachelor’s degree was not in journalism, the only avenue for me to complete a master’s degree in journalism was in the area of research, and I could not picture myself counting commas and semicolons for the next twenty years. So at the end of my first semester in journalism, I ended up switching to the master’s degree program in higher education/student personnel services, and I spent the next two decades working in student services at various colleges and universities.
My first blog has given me the opportunity to realize a dream that had been dormant for years–which is to write, publish, and be creative; and what I have learned since starting that blog and from the writings of other authors over the years of publishing blog posts has been amazing–simply amazing. I am truly in my “element” when I am writing on my two blogs, even though I don’t make a dime in income from either of them.
For Christians, serendipity is much more than “chance” happenings. Is it, as Bill Pomerhn stated above, God’s will or plan for our lives, even if it seems like accidental circumstances to others (or even to us at times). Would I have chosen another way (other than long term unemployment) for my dream to finally be realized? Absolutely (and with a paycheck involved, too). But I didn’t get a vote in how it unfolded; I just had to go along for the ride to see where it lead me. And this is where it has lead me so far.
That’s just one example of serendipity in my own life, but those types of experiences can and do happen on a daily basis if we pay attention to them. And they can take our lives in a totally new direction.
I’ll end this post with one of my “life” verses found in Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding…
In all your ways . . .
Acknowledge Him . . .
And He shall direct your paths . . . .
YouTube Video: “Over the Rainbow/Simple Gifts” by The Piano Guys: