If you’ve ever tried picking up a sport after a decade of not doing it, you’ll know that it’s bloody hard.
When I decided to try rollerblading again this weekend, I decided to try it in Piedmont Park, one of Atlanta’s busiest public places. And, of course, that’s where I learned that it’s bloody hard to balance and propel and stop and turn and glide a human body on wheels.
Fortunately for me, almost as soon as I had started tentatively waddling on my roller blades, getting looks of disdain from kids, and trying not to fall and break bones, I met my two rollerblading sensei.
I didn’t expect to learn much about roller blading this weekend. I went out just to try something new and get out of my familiar rut. I wanted a bit of a challenge. I got a much better bargain through blading with Tara and D. These two skaters were complete strangers to me, but they took time – in the case of D, a couple of hours – to roll around the park with me and show me the ropes.
By the end of my time (I had gone overtime on skates when I had been on the brink of calling it quits before), I had found some decent balance, some decent speed and steering, and a long list of things to work on next time I go skating. I also came away with a new theory on serendipity.
Serendipity Is Not Random
“Serendipity,” is, serendipitously enough, a term coined by a distant relative of mine named Horace Walpole (Thanks Wikipedia). It’s a fancy word for an unexpected lucky break, discovery, or surprise. I think a better way of understanding serendipity is as a discovery of an unexpected but positive orderliness, beauty, or goodness in a situation. Sort of like getting one excellent free rollerskating coach and partner ten minutes after renting skates and then meeting a member of the Atlanta roller skate club thirty minutes later.
Most of us think serendipity – or the unexpected discovery of positive order – is a random occurrence which interrupts our routine lives. I think it’s exactly the opposite.
Serendipity will rarely come to the person who performs the same routine day after day. The routined person has already eliminated the unknown from their environment. They have minimized variables and wild cards. The routined person has designed their routine to minimize twists of fate. While the world and the unknown may sometimes break in on a routined life, the occurrence is rare enough to earn serendipity a reputation for unpredictability.
To experience serendipity and the “unexpected meaningful” it entails, we have to interrupt our lives. We have to welcome the variables. In other words, we have to go into the unknown.
It was only because I chose to lay some money down on skates that I met D and Tara. It’s only because I risked the structural integrity of my tailbone and my pride that I actually learned something.
Daily Deus Ex Machina
Serendipity usually seems to go with challenges. I had almost given up on the skates when I actually got D’s kick-in-the-ass to overcome some of my bad skating habits. Many of us who try new things have been there – on the brink of giving up, either a few minutes or a few decades in. The unknown is hard. Many other explorers of the unknown in life and story find themselves here too, usually with much more serious consequences than hurt pride, bruised shins, and unused rollerblade rental fees.
In story, they’re stranded on the slopes of Mount Doom. They’re about to be shot down by Darth Vader. They’re fighting a desperate last battle against the White Witch.
Then the Eagles come. Then Han Solo joins the fight. Then Aslan breaks the stone table and shows up alive again. The protagonists, once seemingly hopeless, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The literary term for these implausible last minute rescues is “Deus Ex Machina,” which means “god from the machine.” Deus ex machina is:
n. “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.”
There’s a large body of work online poking fun at the use of deus ex machina in stories. SPOILER ALERT: In Lord of the Rings, why do the massive sentient Eagles just show up at the last minute to help protagonist Frodo? Why not just carry him and the Fellowship of the Ring straight to Mordor in the first place? It seems like Tolkien is just using the Eagles to fill in plot points.
If you want to take issue with Tolkien’s plot, I’ll wish you the best of luck (you’ll need it – the entire online Tolkien fan club will be after you). And yet I think there’s some legitimacy to the pattern of reality which deus ex machina tries to express.
Frequently, if you go out down a difficult road by your own choice, you will find places where you may fall. But along with that risk, you open yourself up to the possibility of outside help from everyone who has gone down the same road. These others are the archetypal guides, the wise older men and women of the typical hero’s journey. But like every wise old Buddhist monk guy in the movies and the comic strips, they must be found sitting on a high mountain somewhere. You actually have to climb something to get there.
In my mundane example, Tara and D were my deus ex machina right when I thought that my rollerblading adventure was hopeless. They turned my experience around. The same principle plays out in more extreme cases. It’s only addicts who choose to leave addiction who are open to the discipline and transformation which past addicts can help them find. It’s only the ignorant who choose to learn who can receive unexpected help from those wiser than them.
My point? We can find our sources of unexpected help when we voluntarily embrace the unknown – internal or external – and the difficulty that comes with it. Instead of seeing deux ex machina or a deus ex machina heroic guide as random, we can consistently know where to find them. We know how they serendipity plays out, and we know the cost for encountering it. That cost is going down the unknown path with good faith, hard work, and wide-open awareness. If we do that, we’ll have a hard time not finding guides and heroes who can help us.
My own experience with rollerskating is a small example of the way in which we can experience small instances of serendipity and deus ex machina in everyday life. It’s only by opening ourselves up to the unknown that we can be surprised by order and beauty. It’s only by attempting something new which may doom us to failure – or at least initial failure – that we can find the heroes and guides we need along the way to our goals.