Serendipity, Structure, and the Backward Glance

Serendipity: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also: an instance of this.


In my previous blog I said that I love to wander down various byways, constantly attracted by new things that interest or excite. I then asked: “Isn't this a description of an aimless, purposeless, life? Part of me wants to say No, in loud and indignant tones. A better response might be: Yes, but not in a bad way. To explain why I think that will be the purpose of a subsequent blog.” Now is the time to make good on that promise.

What gives a life a shape and a purpose? At the minimum, it must have some structure. We need, in retrospect, to be able to see what the life is, or was, about. What values did it embody? Can we discern some coherent narrative or story? Did it have a pattern? I say ‘in retrospect’ because we cannot know in advance that a life will have a certain structure, because of all the vicissitudes to which each of us is subject.

One obvious way of imposing shape and purpose is to plan: to have a clear goal and a strategy for executing it. If all goes well, that life will have the very shape and purpose the agent intended it to have. Here are two striking examples. In the early 1950s, Alfred Wainwright decided to write a comprehensive guide to the fells of the English Lake District. What is more, these books were to be entirely hand-written and illustrated; as someone rightly said, maybe the first time someone had attempted such a project since the Middle Ages. Meticulous to the point of obsession, he divided the district into seven areas, each of which was to be the subject of a separate book. He then looked at each fell (or mountain), assessed all the possible routes of ascent, and calculated how long it would take to survey the whole area. He estimated the task would take him eleven years, ending in a particular week in 1963. Each weekend he walked, regardless of the weather; each evening he wrote and sketched. After eleven years of unremitting labour he finished one week early. His is a momentous achievement: an act of homage to the mountains he loved, a work of art, and an inspiration to generations of fell-walkers. The other example is Richard Swinburne who, when young, confided to a fellow graduate student that he wished to rehabilitate natural theology, laying out a plan that started with working on philosophy of science and confirmation theory, and then moving on to discuss the nature of God, the arguments for his existence, the nature of the soul, and much more. The result, as everyone in the field of philosophy of religion knows, is a body of work that has been compared to Aquinas’s in terms of both depth and breadth. Since both Wainwright and Swinburne carried out their plans, and were not deflected by circumstance or change of heart, the shape of their lives was prefigured in those plans.

There is, however, another, perhaps less obvious, way in which a life can have shape. What may look at the time like a series of disparate and unconnected interests, excursions, and meanderings – may later be seen as exhibiting a pattern. Looking back, we may come to see all kinds of interconnections that illuminate, structure, and deepen the significance of what once seemed wholly unconnected. What appeared to be a turning aside from some beaten path may turn out to be part of the path itself.

Let me illustrate by two stories from my own life. Like most British school children, I had some minimal exposure to the poems of Wordsworth. Besides Daffodils I remember reading The Old Cumberland Beggar. Subsequent rather desultory exploration of his poetry led me to such disasters as Peter Bell, and with all the arrogance of youth, I thought Wordsworth worthless. Indeed, to my shame, I remember telling a class that John Stuart Mill had been cured of his depression by reading sentimental novels and the poems of Wordsworth – “probably the only recorded occasion on which reading Wordsworth produced anything of value.” In 1982-3 I was on an exchange visit at the University of Georgia, where I managed to contract influenza over the winter break. I spent Christmas Day wrapped in blankets, looking for something to read. I came across the Norton Anthology of English Verse and, idly turning the pages, read Tintern Abbey. Not only did I instantly identify with Wordsworth’s vision but it shed a backward light on much in my earlier life, weaving together what had hitherto seemed separate: my preference for wild but populated landscape over real wilderness; the spiritual exultation evoked by mountains; my sense, previously unarticulated, that goodness was unitary – that beauty and morality were, at some deep level, one; the shock of recognition I experienced when I first encountered C. S. Lewis’s description of what he called Joy: “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” These, I discovered in Wordsworth’s poem, were not isolated experiences and convictions but were indissolubly interlinked.

The second narrative springs from a response, some years back, to the irritating insistence by University administrators that we let them know what our ‘research programme’ was. For some reason, ‘answer whatever philosophical question seems most interesting at the moment’ did not answer, as far as they were concerned. So the search was on for something that would satisfy them. Over the previous few years, Eve Garrard and I had written three papers together. In each case, the stimulus had come from reading some work that seemed profoundly misguided. Our first paper was on forgiveness, as a result of my writing a response to Swinburne’s views on atonement. The second was on hypocrisy, a topic on which I did not know I had views until I read a paper that seemed to me wildly off the mark. The third, on humility, evolved because it seemed to us a virtue, but on modern understandings of the nature of humility, that made no sense, since it had become associated with being a doormat. (On a wayside pulpit outside a church, the text of which read “The meek shall inherit the earth”, someone had written: “if that’s all right with the rest of you.”) All interesting topics, but did they constitute a research programme? It suddenly dawned on me that they did. What, after all, did these topics have in common? They were all virtues (or vices) that played an essential role in a religious – more specifically a Christian – understanding of the moral life. But in a post-Christian world, it became more difficult to see that they were, or at least should be, so clearly morally central. And what we had done in each paper was to attempt to rehabilitate their status by showing that, suitably understood, each still had an important place to play in our conception of the good (and the bad) life. At this point, I recalled that when I first read Iris Murdoch’s ethical writings, I had been struck by her claim that this was (part of) what she was trying to do. There! We had our research programme that we could triumphantly put on an administrator’s form with a good conscience. But we had set out with no such programme in mind; we had simply followed our noses. It was only in retrospect that the thread which tied these papers together was revealed.

What I think these reflections show is that there are two ways in which the serendipitous may help us make sense of the shape of our lives. Sometimes, as with my reading of Tintern Abbey, the significance of what we have found is immediate. In a moment of epiphany, all is made clear. At other times, we come across an attractive byway and are tempted to explore it, without seeing clearly how it connects with our predominant concerns. Sometimes, of course, it is merely a diversion – a form of relaxation or renewal that may help us to return refreshed to our projects, but does nothing to further them. However, more often than I think most people admit, it will turn out that the seeming byway is indeed part of the main path, as was the case when I turned aside to think about forgiveness or hypocrisy, although originally having no intention of doing so. If we are too directive, if we try to determine in advance what the shape of our lives will be, we run the risk that we will miss out on deeper and more resonant ways in which they can come to have coherence.

There are here, I believe, lessons about our modern obsession with lists, projects, and plans. Eleven Ways to Organize Your Life; Ten Tips for Success, etc. There are also lessons both about the nature of philosophical reflection and about the manner in which the profession is organized. But these will have to wait for another time.