I know a few people who have been derailed lately. No need to go into the circumstances, but they have either been literally or metaphorically knocked for a big Viv Richards’ six. Something has come out of the blue to change the course of where they thought they were going. As Robert Burns so aptly put it in his poem, ‘To A Mouse’, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley*.” Take Peter Kay, who has cancelled his tour next year due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’. The two words cover a multitude of possibilities without actually giving any reason, which is fair enough. Cancelled trains, plugs pulled on concerts, dinners called off, offers withdrawn; at the end of the day, many of life’s u-turns are down to unforeseen circumstances. We might have an outline of how we hope today is going to unfold but, in reality, we have no idea if our schedule will hold or whether our carefully balanced towers of pebbles will come tumbling down. We just don’t know what lies ahead; and such ambiguity is either the beauty of life, or the great leveller in life.
They say that one’s ability to live with and accept uncertainly is directly correlated to one’s level of happiness. Dealing with unforeseen circumstances is a great teacher, but not one we’re necessarily rushing to choose as our tutor. My sense is that being at ease with uncertainly is something we acquire with time, maybe through adversity. We are accustomed to labeling whatever happens as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ according to how we are programmed to believe life should pan out. Yet again, Shakespeare nails it with the best insights, this one from Hamlet, who said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” It’s a wonderful sound bite, all very glib and clever and if we were all robotic algorithms instead of human beings, I might even believe it. But we are thinking, feeling, emotional beings and we cannot automatically programme our way to immediately accepting adversity and thence to happiness. With the passage of time, however, those ‘good’ or ‘bad’ things can turn out to defy their original labeling. The new job you landed (yeah!) turns into your worst nightmare; the broken heart (sob!) has in fact given you space to pursue something (or someone) different and better. And so, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we are changed, we grow, that’s life.
Some of the most celebrated discoveries have been born out of unforeseen circumstances. Many scientists and inventors have set their coordinates to get to a specific place and their final destination has been quite different. In 1965, the chemist, Stephanie Kwolek, set out to create a material to make tougher and more durable tyres. She created what looked like an unassuming liquid polymer. It transpired, however, that she had come up within something that could be used to make fibres five times stronger than steel. What came to be known as ‘Kevlar’ has since become a vital component in modern bulletproof vests – a lifesaver.
There is a Canadian singer-songwriter who I love called Ron Sexsmith. One of his songs, ‘Gold In Them Hills’, has encouraged me to roll with the punches. It speaks to unforeseen circumstances: “Every now and then life says / Where do you think you’re going so fast / We’re apt to think it cruel but sometimes / It’s a case of cruel to be kind.” Next time something bleak sneaks out of the shadows that you weren’t expecting, slip on your invisible bulletproof vest and listen to the little voice that is whispering to you: ‘this isn’t going to be as bad as you think’.
(*Scots for: Often go awry)