I’ve pondered about what word/concept I’d like to use for the circumstances that sometimes things happen that you don’t expect or predict but that happen to be just what you want or need at that moment. This has happened to me enough to believe in it, even though I know it’s just a conceptual bias or irrational attribution, i.e. something more or less random happened but it’s what you wanted so therefore you can believe it had to happen for a reason and because you wanted. All sorts of statistically insignificant events occur (i.e. you record the good ones, ignore the bad ones, and while statistically it’s averages out to zero (with objective measurement), but you choose to believe the “good” ones happened for a reason and so your sample is skewed). Lately I’ve been thinking it’s the other way around for me, the contingent events are all bad, but every now and then the opposite pops up and it restores some belief that events can be good as well as bad. And the closest term to that I can think of or find is fortuity (from dictionary.reference.com):
Here’s my take on some terms people (and I) have sometimes used, but that I want to discontinue using:
- fortune: even though the definition (chance or luck as an external, arbitrary force affecting human affairs) covers good and bad events, this mostly implies good. I want the connotation that the event happens to be good this time but may not be the next time. And I want the connotation that the event itself is mostly neutral and it is our internal state that determines whether it is good or bad. That’s why I was originally thinking of using contingency, but after a little searching as background for this post that doesn’t quite fit either, although the definition (occurring or existing only if (certain other circumstances) are the case; dependent on.) is part of what I’m after.
- fate: This one (the development of events beyond a person’s control, regarded as determined by a supernatural power) I object to (although have used) because it implies some external force has determined what events will happen to me. Although fate most often is connected with religious concepts we sometimes strip it of those trapping and think of it as some vague cosmic force that acts on us. Either way something is creating these events at this time for some reason. I reject this because: a) I don’t think the material universe cares anything about me so it has no influence on me, and, b) I don’t believe in anything supernatural largely because there is no evidence for it and even if it can be presumed (i.e. can’t prove a negative) by any sensible definition supernatural is beyond the material and therefore irrelevant. This is where I think most religions make their mistake (except basic deism) that not just that something supernatural (i.e. god) exist, but that it interacts with me personally (that takes even more faith than merely believing something might exist that can’t be detected)
- destiny: to my thinking this is a stronger version of fate and the differences in definition (the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person or thing in the future; the hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future) are subtle and often they can be used as synonyms. Also it would appear, by definition, that there is no bias in favor or against you and I’m looking for the unexpected good things so this doesn’t work on two levels.
- providence; the convention definition (the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power) really puts this into belief in supernatural power controlling our lives, which I reject, but this portion of the definition (timely preparation for future eventualities) does hit a bit of the point I’m making. You have to believe in personal god for the first definition and I don’t, but the idea that you prepare yourself for a contingent event to have a positive impact on you is part of what I’m trying to define.
- karma/dharma: Like almost everything else in eastern thought/religion I find these terms opaque and confusing. I’ve tried many times to study these schools but frankly find them too inexplicable and/or contradictory to make much use of them. Nonetheless I’ve often used “it’s karma” or “karma debt” to explain things, although not really seriously. The definition, at least formal, (the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences) shows how the pop (new-agey) notion (destiny or fate, following as effect from cause) is probably too far removed from the original definition to be much more than mush or wishful thinking. While it’s easy and common to use the informal definition, before pop redefining of terms it’s critical to think about the original definition. To believe in karma one needs to believe in previous lives / reincarnation. Now most religion is silly to me, esp. anything that not only has no proof but really can’t have proof, but the reincarnation idea is particularly silly to me. What possible reason could one have for believing such an illogical and also highly improbable state? So I’m to believe what happened to me is due to something that happened to me when I was a cow? Come on.
- luck: This doesn’t quite work either. Luck usually implies good thing, hence people saying ‘bad luck’, but usually just saying ‘luck’ instead of ‘good luck’. Most people really believe in luck but this is just another self-deception. Any small sample size can be analyzed to find a pattern that isn’t really there (or more data would dispel). It’s well known that people win when they win at casinos and manage to forget when they lose and if they were objectively honest they’d see a different average outcome (i.e. you lose at casinos, by definition). Even Nate Silver implied he had ‘good luck’ for a while playing poker even though, in his book, he somewhat recognized there were other factors behind his ‘lucky streak’. And when people believe they have luck on their side, they implicitly (sometimes explicitly) believe some agency is behind it, often the karma (new age definition) or destiny (someone up there is looking out for you). Balderdash! The universe doesn’t care and deliver good luck (statistical deviation from mean of outcomes) and there is nobody up there.
- random: So after dismissing these other terms you’d think I’d be left with random, but that doesn’t fit either. I do think the material world has no pattern (statistically more likely outcomes, possibly) and thus could be defined as random. But the idea I’m talking about is definitely not random. Plus, I actually don’t believe in total randomness in nature either (even beyond non-uniform probability distributions, like strange attractors). I know that an radioactive nucleus undergoing spontaneous fission is considered random (we can statistically say what the probability is, but not say a particular atom at a particular time will split) and electrons changing state, thus absorbing or emitting a photon is governed by uncertainty principle and thus random, but actually I think this will turn out to be an impermanent scientific view. When you don’t understand a cause it is an easy cop-out to just declare it to be random. I don’t actually believe quantum mechanics is correct; I just think it is our incomplete understanding of nature and thus the best we can say now, but someday some deeper ideas will explain phenomenon we now consider random and/or uncertain. Boy, who am I to disagree with conventional physics, but like Einstein I’ll go with “god doesn’t play dice with the universe”, which: a) Einstein probably never said that, and, b) he didn’t mean god in any religious sense which many people choose to ignore his actual meaning.
That’s all the possibilities I can think of (now, I’m sure if I worked out I could get more subtly different terms) so what am I left with.
What I’m getting at is something like this. You’ve passed some kind of business many times driving and never paid it any attention. Then you happen to need the service of this business, and, poof, there it is. It’s been there all along, you just didn’t notice it. It is “random” to some degree (the chance that the thing you needed was part of your everyday world, it didn’t just appear there, or perhaps it did, they finished opening the business the day you needed it)
So the concept (and thus a good word for it) I’m trying to define is a combination of something needed at exactly the right time and place you have a need for it. That’s what I’m going to try to remember to use ‘fortuity’ for even though I’d still like a better term. (Any suggestions, Dear Reader?) A lot of scientists or scholars (at least old ones) were literature in Greek and Latin and so coined their own term when the ones in English don’t quite fit. I’m not so creative so I have to choose what I can remember or quickly find through synonyms of the terms that almost fit. So, actually I was going to use contingency and in looking that up for complete definition, ideally with all known connotations, I found fortuity instead.
Now what inspired all this?
I won’t elaborate but things have been pretty negative for me lately and my expectation for the future is particularly gloomy. BUT, having been on this earth for a while and down in the dumps before I also have experienced that sometimes good unexpected things happen. I didn’t include the words ‘hope’ or ‘faith’ in my list, but I do have some sense that sometimes things will just work out, unknown to us how or when, or even why.
What I do know is that being ‘open’ (and that’s a bit hard to explain) has a lot to do with it. When you’re not looking for something, you’re not going to find it (simplistic, but it’s a bit deeper than that). And even though you feel like you’re in a ‘losing streak’ that’s statistically incorrect, possibly good things could happen but you don’t let them.
So I need to add to the raw definition of fortuity the idea that when you need something different/new, when you’re open to something different/new, even if out of desperation, somewhere there is something that may fit the need and quite possibly it’s been there all along or perhaps you just randomly stumble on it.
I know it sounds trivial, but here’s the specific that triggered that. I’m back in Rapid City which I certainly didn’t expect, but it’s a bit of a magnet drawing me to it because I know what to expect here and can use it for a base camp to look for something else. While camping one of my tires has been slowly losing air and the rate at which it’s doing that increased. One time my dash warning light went on was in the middle of a thunderstorm and I had to get out and use my emergency battery/pump to inflate the tire in middle of it hailing. And I want to go on a very rough backroad where damage to the tire could cause me serious problem, plus my emergency pressure device wasn’t made for frequent use. ‘bad luck’ might mean the tire would fail more completely in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time and my air compressor (or the battery) would fail at same time and this bad alignment of events would be really unfortunate. Meanwhile I’ve just tried to minimize the risk (i.e. sticking to main roads where I could get emergency road service). But I want to be in better shape than that so I’m using my down time (escape from camping, i.e. a bed and shower in a motel) to also get the tire fixed. I hate going to repair places as they always try to sell me something I don’t need and/or rip me off. So I drove around looking at some of the candidates here that would be least problematic. And so, fairly painlessly, I got the tire fixed with only a halfhearted attempt to sell me a new set of tires so I was able to say no (a good high pressure salesman would have sized me up as a sucker and told me my current tires would blow on the Interstate at high speed and I’d be killed, of course, I’d buy new tires). So done with the tire, I’m a little hungry. Now I’ve been eating big meals at restaurants or heated-up canned glop at campground and I don’t want either. So I’m thinking about something new, yes, fast food, but not the usual. Now due to my dieting I haven’t been to Subway (which is a far step down from ToGos in California, but my only choice as I like subs) in a long time, so I see one and stop there. That was the expected (sorta, I was just looking for chain fast food places). My cheapo cellphone has something I never knew before, it connects to strongest signal, not the one Tracfone has a service agreement with and thus I get error trying to call. So at the Subway I try it again and sure enough I get through. So now I’m talking instead of ordering and it’s about lunchtime. While talking a huge mob of people go in the Subway and it will be a long wait to get my sandwich. Had I gone in when I first arrived it would have been empty and I would have eaten Subway which was what I expected. So I drive on. I see a sign for a Mongolian BBQ, maybe that will do. I’m on a busy street and have to turn left and there is a gap in traffic so without any more hesitation I make the turn. Mongolian BBQ doesn’t look right and then I notice:
Philly Ted’s Cheezesteaks
What I wonder. So I check it out. Instantly I know this is the place. Funky and humorous signs all over the place. So I order. Then I notice testimonials and reviews. According to those I’ve happened into the best cheesesteaks outside Phili. And it was good (not being a cheesesteak aficionado and only once having had a (mediocre) cheesesteak in Philadelphia, I can’t judge). But it exactly exactly hit the spot. The right quantity, the right taste, the right environment.
So what do you call that?
There is a large improbable chain of events leading to me finding exactly what I wanted and that I didn’t even known (certainly wouldn’t predict) existed. But there is was, the right thing at the right time at the right place.
Now, of course, I’m making the statistical error, just like the gambler only remembering winning. How many times have I wanted something and NOT found it? But this time it was pure chance and exactly right.