I spent a good portion of this week at (or going to and coming from) the International Conference on Romanticism in Colorado Springs, which was a fascinating and enlightening experience. I presented and attended many presentations and was struck by the amount of serendipity involved in these academic discoveries. However, I didn’t quite realize that until we (a fellow grad student and I) were driving back to Provo and passed through Fruita, CO. I was curious about the origins of the name and googled it to discover a wealth of fascinating information. Fruita was home to Mike the Headless Chicken, who lived 18 months after having his head chopped off in the 1940s. He toured around as part of sideshows and at peak popularity earned his owner the equivalent of $47,800 per month. There’s an annual festival in honor of Mike the Headless Chicken. AND there’s a band formed in 1994 in California that takes at least some inspiration from poor Mike called The Radioactive Chicken Heads. Who knew?
Now you’re probably wondering what in the world does this have to do with Mormonism or other spiritual things? I’m not quite sure how to articulate it, but this sense of serendipity feels to me like God’s grace. Or at least partially how I perceive of Grace. Let’s throw out some definitions from my friend the Oxford English Dictionary:
Serendipity: “The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.”
I would define discovery pretty broadly here to encompass insights, new perspectives, general “aha” moments, perhaps even what we could term revelation or promptings. Now for grace.
Grace: “As a quality of God: benevolence towards humanity, bestowed freely and without regard to merit, and which manifests in the giving of blessings and granting of salvation”
“As something received from God by the individual: benevolent divine influence acting upon humanity to impart spiritual enrichment or purity, to inspire virtue, or to give strength to endure trial and resist temptation.”
These moments of serendipity rarely seem earned, but rather are freely given. They just happen. At least I see and feel them happening to me. I frequently feel that my spiritual life is improved in serendipitous circumstances—watching films (like A Serious Man, Pulp Fiction, Her, and even Captain America: Civil War), listening to music (“He Lives in You” from The Lion King, some of Wicked, Hamilton, etc.), teaching, sitting in class, random conversations with friends, driving through Colorado and googling random towns that we passed through, etc.
Perhaps this is due to cultivating an openness or receptiveness to serendipity? I’m not quite sure what that entails or if that’s possible, but there might be something there.
However, though serendipitous grace seems to be a thread in my life, I know not everyone sees or experiences that. What do we do with that? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps I’ve simply crafted a narrative of my experiences that requires the inclusion of serendipitous grace to work. It’s my life-story MacGuffin, as it were. Something I can use to explain the lives of others and my life, but in and of itself is not inherently apparent.
Also, I wonder about dealing with some of the ideas that Adam Miller has put forward (and I think are echoed in a powerful interview Stephen Colbert did with GQ) concerning grace as all-encompassing—that is that everything in our lives is grace, the good, the bad, the ugly; it all comes from God and we need to embrace all of it. A lengthy section from the article I think helps illustrate this idea. Colbert’s responding to a question about the loss of his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash when he was ten.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that’s why. Maybe, I don’t know. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.
I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien’s mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.
“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.””
I read this interview a little over a year ago and keep coming back to it (at least in part because of the family tragedies that have struck close to me this year), trying to wrap my head (and heart) around what it means. Something feels right here, but I can’t quite grasp it. You can gratefully accept what is given you, without wanting it. You can love what you most wish hadn’t happened. Perhaps to cultivate a sense of spiritual serendipity, to really feel and live with serendipitous grace I need to embrace the dark-side of serendipity (perhaps fitting given the theme of ICR was Dark Romanticism), the unhappy and unexpected discoveries. The unpleasant. The painful. The ones that cause you to weep. To love what I most wish hadn’t happened.