Welcoming Life's Serendipitous Moments
Tanya Schmidt '12
As someone who meticulously updates her Google calendar, I know the natural desire to plan the shape of one’s future, but often our most memorable experiences are not the ones that we expect, or even can predict.
On a recent road trip my father and I took around the U.K., the major sightseeing planned on our itinerary—such as walking along a portion of Hadrian’s Wall and visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace—indeed were the highlights we anticipated them to be. But the unexpected sight of a family of ducks on a road near the Ironbridge Gorge will always be one of our best memories of the trip. The ducks stopped traffic as they waddled across the road at their leisurely pace, and in those moments my father and I had a memorable conversation with a local resident, sitting in his car, waiting for the ducks to pass.
It’s impossible to predict when these serendipitous moments will occur. We were glad to have a basic plan of when to visit certain museums, but if we hadn’t been open to scenes off script, so to speak, we might have rushed by this beautiful moment. In the workplace, we might easily find ourselves so focused on a goal that we are blind to the life that passes us by in the meantime. Furthermore, in a competitive culture that seems to foster stepping over people in order to climb the so-called ladder of success, we might think that we can predict who will be the people to teach us or to help us reach our goals.
Serendipity may arise at any time, even when someone en route to his goal almost runs you over – literally. Back in New York, another pedestrian and I were almost run over by a skateboarder crossing through a red light at startling speed. We both jumped to get out of the way, and afterward struck up a conversation over our surprise. Now friends, we laugh whenever we tell the story of how we met at a stoplight on 6th Avenue.
Eighteenth century English Romantic poet William Wordsworth says it best when he writes about how the beauty of a “host of golden daffodils" surprised him and his sister Dorothy as they walked in England’s Lake District. When they first encountered the daffodils, Wordsworth writes: “I gazed—and gazed—but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought.” He did not know how the experience would continue to bear fruit over time. The poem—one of the fruits of his experience—concludes with the image of Wordsworth remembering the vision of daffodils much later, when he lies on his couch “in vacant or in pensive mood.” In such solitude, Wordsworth retrieves the memory, and the memory sweetens his present moment: “And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.”
Of course we now take photos to remember moments, but our obsession with capturing and archiving the experience—and the fear of being in one place and missing out on the experience of another activity—sometimes prevents us from noticing such precious moments. One of my academic advisors once told me: “Do not underestimate the importance of noticing.” She always recommended: “observe before you analyze.”
It’s hard to know which professional or personal experiences will be the ones to change our lives, and even harder to allow them to do so if we are not open to serendipity.