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Counting on Serendipity
What if, all this time, the very walls that you had built to protect yourself were the ones keeping the sunlight out of your life.
75 years ago, in 1947, British India split into two independent Nations - India and Pakistan. The reality on the ground was a massive bloodbath that saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people who were fleeing the places they once called home. With nothing but the clothes on their backs and toddlers in their arms, my grandparents, along with millions of others, crossed the border into India to make a new life in a new land.
This is the story my father grew up hearing, the struggle he grew up witnessing. His formative years shaped by experiencing firsthand the difficulties his father faced while trying to find work to support his family and a house for them to live. The one clear and resounding message my father received throughout his childhood was that life is uncertain. That you need to work very hard to build your life and learn to protect what you have. And even if you do everything you can it may not be enough because one day it may all just get randomly taken away from you.
He took this to heart and passed these lessons down to his children. In our house mistakes were not tolerated. You had to always be working hard and taking a break meant that you had failed to master the vagaries of your wandering mind. Any failure was seen as a weakness. If someone in authority disliked your work then that meant you had failed, if you didn’t like school then you had failed, if something unexpected or unforeseen upset your plans then you had failed. Basically the idea was that no matter what, if everything didn’t go perfectly every single time then you had failed. And failure would mean that you would end up in a shitty college with a shitty job and have a shitty life with nothing good in it.
My father would say this to me over and over again when I was growing up. He would say that no one else would ever have the courage to tell me the truth that life was hard and that you needed to preemptively protect yourself. If I ever questioned his worldview or disagreed with him in any way he said that I had a terrible attitude. He said that if I behaved like this around other people then they wouldn’t like me but no one would tell me to my face. He said that my parents were the only ones who would tell it like it is, because they were the only ones who really cared about me. I remember him saying that one day *when* my whole life comes crashing down, I will have no one to turn to but my parents because no one else would come to help.
As I was only a child, I believed every word he said. Now, after almost a decade of living away from home I’ve started to ask myself - does any of this even make sense?
The truth is that I have never been young and hopeful. Only paranoid and cynical. My upbringing has taught me that life is war and stepping out into the world with kindness and lightheartedness will never get you anywhere. Real life will come at you out of nowhere and take all your happiness away. So you have to protect what you have now and always. This means that I’m afraid all the time. It feels like this fear has seeped deep into my core and courses alongside the blood in my veins. I feel myself stopping myself from doing almost anything I want to do, questioning every little thought, idea and decision. I feel like the world will hurt me if I put myself out there and stopping myself from expressing my full self is actually a *kindness* and I’m doing it in the name of *self-protection*.
I think perhaps my father was too aware of how life could go wrong. He saw it as his duty to protect his children against the uncertainty and fear that enveloped his life, and teach them how to be self-reliant in the face of any obstacle. And while I understand that these are valid concerns, I am hard pressed to see fear and paranoia as being any kind of real solution to these problems. Clamping down on your child’s individuality and personal freedom is only going to teach them to be more afraid, not less.
Because the thing is, there’s another way to look at the events that happened in my grandfather’s life: They escaped. They made it out. Think about how hard it was for them to do that but they did it and now they live in a better world. This framing of the story can make you believe in the power of good things happening to you.
But my father didn’t look at it this way and didn’t teach me to look at it this way. For a long time I tried to tell myself that the world around him never taught him to believe in anything good. But that doesn’t really make sense. Things are hard everywhere in the world. Everyone has good and bad experiences in life. So choosing to focus on the bad, being afraid that everything will fall apart if you try something new, that can’t just be the result of your experiences. It has to be the result of your experiences combined with the frame through which you look at them. And if your circumstances - which are out of your control - are not the only thing that shape how you look at life, then there’s hope for me yet. Because it means I’m not doomed to perceive events the way the world tells me to perceive them, I can choose to frame things in a different light if that is what I want.
This realization has been very important to me. Because in thinking about all this, my main quest has always been to stop myself turning into my father. He had a hard childhood and learned that life was hard. And because of that he gave me a hard time during my childhood so he could teach me that life is hard. But that’s not a lesson I want to learn. I don’t want to become jaded and cynical and afraid of ever really trying anything new for fear of failing. I want to be someone who counts on serendipity.
Counting on serendipity means relying on the fact that life is not all bad and that unexpected good things will happen to you.
It means keeping your door open and saying yes to opportunities that may seem frivolous or misguided to others but sound fun and interesting to you. It means starting with the belief that you can make good things happen for yourself, trusting your instincts to know what’s good for you, and then putting yourself out there so that the good things in life can find you. It means leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that other people can follow to lead them to you so they may bring opportunities and friendship and happiness into your life. It means taking paths that may seem non-optimal simply because you’re interested in exploring them. It doesn’t mean being blindly optimistic or unaware of the fact that sometimes putting yourself out there might lead to you getting hurt. However that alone isn’t reason enough to never even try.
Life is a meandering journey through a foggy maze in which you can scarcely see out past your hands but if you look closely at the world around you you’ll notice it’s full of beauty and love and each moment is filled with everything you could ever need to be happy. At every crossroads you may choose between multiple paths, some of which you may have the chance to explore again and some that will remain unexplored forever. And you won’t be able to make sense of any of it long after you’re far away from that moment in time and in space, and perhaps not even then. So who’s to say that your decisions now are good or bad. All you can know for sure is that you’re willing to try and see what happens. All you can know is that you’d rather count on serendipity than not play the game at all.
So my final question is, how do I do it? How do I go from being someone who’s internalized the fear passed down by her ancestors into someone who’s open to new experiences? How do I become a person who counts on serendipity?
Is it as simple as *thinking* that you’re this person and taking actions in accordance with your new beliefs? Nothing external needs to happen, nothing about your past or your upbringing or your trauma needs to change, you just need to start thinking of yourself as this new person. Then you’ll do things that align with your values and pretty soon you’ll build up a past full of experiences where you’re someone who believes that serendipity happens to everyone. Then you’ll just start to think of yourself as someone who counts on serendipity happening to you and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So I guess what we’re really talking about here is the idea of how to start a self-fulfilling prophecy. By definition they’re cyclical so how does that cycle even begin?
Maybe it’s here. It’s in one human deciding that she will choose to work on something that feels unnatural right now but that she knows is a core part of her identity. The way to start a self-fulfilling prophecy is to believe that it will come true, even when there’s no real way to explain to other people how that will happen. Your job is simply find a way to keep going. Your job is to continue counting on serendipity until you’re proven right.
Courage doesn’t look like you expect it to. I’m incredibly afraid to publish my writing and yet I’m still doing it. Courage and foolhardiness are actually indistinguishable from the inside. This feels like the hardest thing I’ve ever done even though I know that I’m really good at it. Forget that, I know in my heart that this is what I’m meant to be doing. And yet, I feel like it’s taken every ounce of strength I have to write what I feel and put it out there for you to read. I feel like I literally have nothing else to give.
What if I fail? What if people hate it? What if what if what if ..
Well here’s another what if for you. What if you die without ever having published anything. What are you more afraid of - publishing, or dying without ever having published anything.
In the end courage comes down to this: do the thing that you would most regret if you died without ever having done it. Because I’ll tell you this, no matter how painful it feels now or how deep you have to dig to produce this work and put your full, vulnerable self out there, living through it while you’re doing it will be less painful than dying without ever having tried.