The Music of Chance

As published in Chronique

Fate is such a loaded word. We all so endlessly muse about how fate has dealt us good (or, more often) bad cards, how a random meeting or accident all comes down to the hand of God or some such divine force. A friend – talking about how he encountered the woman who became his wife when they both missed a bus on a busy London street – told me: ‘Of course someone was bringing us together that day… it was preordained”.

I’m often fascinated by the way we attempt to rationalize happenstance. Thirty-six years ago, while a student at Trinity College Dublin, I was knocked down by a car while crossing the street. I was traversing Baggot Street, having just finished writing an essay about Sean O’Casey, my head in the clouds, when, suddenly, out of nowhere, a car swerved around the corner and sent me flying. I jumped, but the car still caught me on my right flank and sent me heading towards the kerb. Suddenly that lip of concrete looked like a ten foot wall. And – I remember this so clearly – I threw my arms up, protecting my head, as I slammed into the concrete. People came running. I remember blacking out for around ten seconds, then coming to and (being a heavy smoker back then) asking for a cigarette. Among the crowd gathered around me someone mumbed:

“Oh Jesus, he hit a fucking Yank!”

The man who hit me brought me to hospital – where my arm was x-rayed and I was diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder. When I got home that night my then-girlfriend had a very Dublin solution to my problem – a bottle of whisky with which to chase my painkillers. And as we got into bed that night – trying to make love with my arm heavily bandaged in a sling – she turned to me and said:

“God evidently wanted you to see tomorrow”.

Ah, the joys of an Irish Catholic upbringing. But though I understood her need to cite a reason why I survived what could have easily been a fatal accident, what I know from that precise incident when the car struck me was: I saved myself by throwing my arms up at the moment when I was being hurled towards the kerb.

Was that fate? Or sheer animalistic survival instinct? I didn’t have time to think. I simply reacted – and did so in a completely self-preservational way. Did I do so because some higher force had decided I really should see tomorrow? Or was it all wild reflex? Again, another friend – someone with a rather mystic bent – told me (when I recounted this story many years later): “You clearly didn’t want to leave this life just then”.

Actually, as someone who loves life, I never want to leave temporal existence. Then again, as Montaigne once noted, ‘You have to think about death every day in order to live”. But does fate really play any role in the trajectory of a life? Or that of a death?

A story from my university years which always haunted me. A guy I know – just nineteen – was cycling along a country road with a woman friend when a lorry roared by. According to the driver of the lorry the guy could have turned out of the path of his oncoming vehicle. According to the woman who was with the guy she couldn’t tell whether or not he suddenly slammed on the brakes and allowed himself to be hit, head-on, by this oncoming vehicle. The guy was thrown ten metres, broke his neck, and died instantly. And in the wake of my own encounter with a moving vehicle I couldn’t help but wonder: did he, right before the moment of impact, decide not to save himself?

Again we are entering the realm of conjecture. The guy was nineteen. On the surface he had everything to live for. In that split second had he chosen to die, just as I had chosen to live?
Or is this the most absurd speculation imaginable? After all, one of the great truisms of life is the fact that we can never fully know the internal workings of another person. Just as we can also never really know ourselves. As such, who can tell how we will react at a given moment when life or death hangs in the balance? The fact is, we all live in a world where a seemingly well-ordered life can be upended in a moment; where all that we feel is the ballast of our quotidien existence can vanish overnight. Is that fate – something pre-ordained for us? Or is that nothing more than the random nature of the life we all lead?

  • Rose