The more empty your day, the more you fill it with thought experiments. Canvassing the plausible, improbable, and impossible passes time, stimulates the brain. You can’t know everything—everyone knows that—and something unnoticed always hides in all that’s plain. In idle moments, you may be happy to discover what you haven’t considered before, and, besides, dreaming a world where nothing can be new or unanticipated is nightmarish.
But, in life, less so.
One of the English teachers at my school devised a course called “Happily Ever After” featuring literature that ends positively. It can’t have been easy to teach the class or, for that matter, to choose texts. Mistakes compel attention and explanation. Good fortune, a gift, begs acknowledgement, acceptance, and little more.
Some years ago, I taught a similar course called “The Comic View.” My purpose was to examine the way comedy works, its motivations and its mechanisms and its perspective and its effect. I got nowhere. Most conversations began by nodding at what was funny or fortunate—the class agreed to pursue at least that line of questioning—yet, the moment discussion turned to why we laughed or what it might say about us, the students sighed. They might be interested, I told myself, if only I could get them started, but no cajoling worked long. No one wanted relief to end.
“Here,” they seemed to say, “see, something good happened. Let’s not ask why.”
I read an essay where the author described a bird dropping from several stories, then—as if the bird bounced on hard air—it leapt back into flight. It flew back to the roof where it started and fell again. Again and again. I would like to see that bird, or to see any animal defy its gifts. Some secret waits there. If a true test can have no witnesses, then success and failure, whatever the terms mean, must happen in solitude. The bird caught itself in time, but that can’t always be the case.
Birds must fall. If the rest of the animal kingdom resembles us, it must resemble us in mishap. Our lapses crush steel and glass. They sacrifice our limbs to machines. They wipe our lives, and other lives, away. We watch these moments in the past and, recalling them imperfectly, can’t guess causes exactly… including what’s meant, not meant, and in-between.
Bumper stickers recognize shit happens, but no bumper sticker will ever attain the length required to explain why.
A new upscale market in our neighborhood teems with friendly helpers in natty black T-shirts. When I visit, I try to come up with some missing item. “Do you have kamut puffs?” I ask, or “I’m looking for pickled brussel sprouts…” or “I notice you don’t have any ESBs, do all your beers have IBUs above 45?”
Where do my interactions go? Do they drop them in the box for crazy and misguided requests or take them as a challenge to anticipate the unanticipated? What if I visited the market daily without explaining why—how long before they’d acknowledge the finitude of their collection, the absolute certainty they’ve missed something?
More practically, how long before they bar me?
The Christian use of “accident” comes from Aristotle (as co-opted by Thomas Aquinas) and describes unessential aspects. The Eucharist is transubstantiated as the body and blood of Christ, Aquinas said, and its existence as bread and wine is accidental. Its essential substance is miraculous even if its earthly nature seems ordinary. The specific food and drink don’t matter.
Aristotle delineates nine traits as accidental: quantity, quality, relation, habitus (state or condition), time, location, situation or position, and passion (how a thing is acted upon).
The first time I encountered his list, I thought, “What’s left?” It seemed to me an exhaustive description of any item’s traits. I never reached reconciling his “accident” with the word’s colloquial meaning as “an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance.”
I’ve tried since. Everything, it seems, is accidental. That is, nothing is at last essential in anything we see or experience. If the essential exists, it’s not defined by any of the traits Aristotle identified. Those traits are perceivable, and the essential, it appears, is not.
The implications of unanticipated events elude understanding. What happens was never meant, wasn’t essential, and didn’t have to be. We just can’t let accidents be. We have to account, explain, make them into more than they may be.
The eponymous event of Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake dictates human beings repeat the years 1991 through 2001 with no hope of correcting mistakes they made. They cause and suffer the same accidents. They experience the same joy and the same grief, and their lives run an identical path with only one difference—they know it.
In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the alien Tralfamadorians compare the human perception of time to riding a flatcar, chained down, wearing a helmet that prevents looking left or right, and spying the world exclusively through a six foot long tube. A comic retelling of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the analogy relies on a similar twist—we don’t know. The situation seems, to us, utterly ordinary.
The truth lies somewhere between. Maybe we do know. Perhaps not. In the context of the moment, everything seems accidental, the sum of multitudinous causes and therefore arbitrary. Yet, among the possibilities, is the prospect it’s not so, that we never see the essential necessity of events, their solidity and surity.
Just now I have a headache and think I know why. I’ve had too much coffee this week. By drinking coffee, I’ve prepared to work instead of working. Though I hoped to enhance my wakefulness and concentration for mental labor, I’ve been lost in a cloud of misty connections instead, jangled and diffuse in attention to what I ought to be doing. Off caffeine, I suffer the expected results—I’m not worth a damn.
My explanation, however, is self-serving. Faced with onerous tasks, I’ve found a way to end my responsibility in a way that isn’t altogether unpleasant. Work awaits, but circumstances cooperated to put it aside. I’m only capable of composing this post… which is what I wanted to do in the first place.
The inevitable often seems so sure.
Perhaps you remember the vertigo you felt when you thought for the first time that everything, everything, everything might be part of your imagination. My variation on that moment led me to posit I imagined every limit. If I could only believe a sub-eight second 100 meters were possible, I might run one.
As you may expect, I put the theory to many tests. I ran away from the sun, chasing my shadow, and tried to anticipate overtaking it. My choice was faith, and faith, I trusted, would make my desires real. The results disappointed. Still, sometimes I blame my mind’s limits, its imprisonment in what I’d learned was irrevocable cause and effect. Obliged to fulfill what I’d experienced, I couldn’t conceive what might—really—happen.
Comfort with uncertainty defines the modern mind, or so we like to think. We’re all negatively capable, cognitively dissonant, unsure and happy. If nothing is known, everything is known. We can be pleased with that.
You may also believe deficits and assets reach a rough balance every sundown. You invest in trusting a final summation is impossible and will never come in any case. Certainly, our own end will never come—it’s intolerable to think so. Despite our flirtations with dire consequences, no accident looms. Only some outcomes can occur. Only some thoughts.
Stuck in paradoxes, you let them lie. What’s accidental and incidental and intentional will work itself out according to rules we can’t know. What’s certain and essential is never either. You delight in surprise. You face tragedy if and when it arrives.
Accidents are either terrifying or enticing… and unknowable regardless. What choice do I have except to explain?