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By Alan Jacobs


Serendipity

In praise of accidental sagacity.

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Serendipity is different. The word was coined by that curious man Sir Horace Walpole, known today (if at all) as one of the founders of the "Gothic" tale of suspense and terror, but more famous in his own time as an especially elegant and proficient writer of letters. In a 1754 letter to a friend he describes his discovery of some curious Venetian coat of arms, and pauses to say that "This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity." And then he explains that "very expressive word" of his own invention: "I once read a silly fairy tale, called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'"—Serendip being an old name for Sri Lanka: "as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of … (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description)." The finding of what one is not looking for will be the element of the letter most obviously relevant to what I've been saying so far; but equally important is the phrase "by accidents and sagacity," or, as Walpole puts it later in the same letter, "accidental sagacity."

Fortuity happens, but serendipity can be cultivated. You can grow in serendipity. You can even become a disciple of serendipity. The elevation of Fortuna to the status of goddess is a way of shrugging: an admission of helplessness, an acknowledgment of all that lies beyond our powers of control. But in the very idea of serendipity is a kind of hope, even an expectation, that we can turn the accidents of fortune to good account, and make of them some knowledge that would have been inaccessible to us if we had done no more than discover what we were looking for.

Indeed, it may be possible not only to cultivate the sagacity but also the accidents. It may be possible, and desirable, to actively put yourself in the way of events beyond your control. Thus, just as I was completing this essay, I—serendipitously?—came across these comments by the historian Timothy Burke: "there are many contexts where I have very constrained expectations about what I expect to find through search, where serendipity or unpredictability is not at all what I want. Then I expect to be King User, and woe betide the peasant interfaces and authority–category churls that try to get between me and my goal. But there are other times where I want search to be alchemy, to turn the lead of an inquiry into unexpected gold. I'm hoping that the rush to simplify, speed up, demystify and digitize search doesn't leave that alchemy behind."

The cultivation of serendipity, of this alchemy, is an option for anyone, but—so I wish to argue—for Christians living in conditions of prosperity and security and informational richness it is something vital, perhaps even necessary. To practice "accidental sagacity" is to recognize that I don't really know where I am going, even if I like to think I do; that if I know what I am looking for I probably don't know what I need; that I am not master of my destiny and captain of my fate; that it is a very good thing that I am not master of my destiny and captain of my fate; that the more often I succumb to the temptation to say "I am my own" the more completely I close off the possibility of a blessing that comes from beyond my own desires and self–love. The cultivation of serendipity is at once a self–abnegation, a disciplining of technological power, a form of trust in God, and an expression of solidarity with the vast multitudes of Christians from all generations whose poverty and powerlessness made it impossible for them to think even for a moment that they could control their own lives. An accidental sagacity is the form of wisdom I most need, but am least likely to find.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.

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