One casualty of the pandemic may be one for which there are no statistics. It is overlooked because it is about what doesn’t happen, and you can’t measure that.
I’m talking about serendipity, those chance encounters, and conversations that we could never anticipate but that can be life-changing. Those moments have started careers, marriages, projects, collaborations. They have changed the trajectories of people’s lives, and now, as we isolate ourselves from one another, they are not happening. It’s impossible to know the ways our lives might be impoverished as a result. Does anything help make up for this loss?
Almost every major decision in my life was shaped by serendipity.
I became a college literature professor in part because of a “chance” conversation in the office of one of my favorite undergraduate English professors, who off-handedly said, “You should come back here and teach someday.” That possibility had never occurred to me. My plans were headed in a much different direction. I wasn’t in her office to discuss my future. I don’t know what prompted her comment, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. In great part because of that conversation, becoming a college professor became my goal. After years of preparation in graduate school, I did go back there to teach for five years, and she became my colleague.
Today, with students and professors mostly separated except for Zoom classes, would such a conversation be likely to occur?
I met my wife in church when I visited a Sunday school class for the first time. She offered me a cup of coffee, and our relationship took off from there. No such in-person visit would happen today. I met the publisher of seven of my books through a chance meeting at dinner on the opening night of a writers conference. The pandemic has now ended that conference. I chose the graduate school I attended by reading about it on a poster on the wall, something that would not happen in an era where students see only their own walls without such posters.
I wonder about the serendipitous moments I am missing with my own students. One of my former students from years ago told me that he decided to become a writer when I called him up after class one day to tell him how much I enjoyed something he had written, and I encouraged him to keep writing. I don’t remember that conversation, and calling him up was probably a quick, last-minute decision since I don’t often do that.
But the moment was a turning point for him.
My students are not only missing these important encounters with me, but also with one another. Gone for now are the late-night dorm conversations, the new friendships that form in the cafeteria, the budding romances, the encounters with coaches, directors, internship bosses, and countless other moments. Like me, they are holed up at home, cut off from the life-giving routines of a college campus.
When I’m on campus, I can’t even count the number of sidewalk conversations, parking lot conversations, and cafeteria conversations I have had at my university that never would have taken place if we had to schedule them. Projects, collaborations, friendships and creative ideas have sprung from these unexpected encounters. For a while, I kept running into so many people in the parking lot in the evening that I built in a little extra time for those conversations just in case I saw somebody. Now, as I do all my work from my office at home, none of that is happening.
For scholars and writers, conferences are the ultimate serendipity events.
Conferences would be worth going to even if we never attended a session (although those can bring good surprises too). During the pandemic, almost every conference I normally would have attended has been canceled or moved online. A digital conference is better than no conference, especially in terms of providing information, but it doesn’t match what can happen when people gather together in person to share their passion for a common activity or area of study. Information itself is only a fraction of the value of such a gathering. Far more important can be the conversations in hallways, at meals, in conference rooms before or after sessions. Recently I read a discussion in which a few people commented that online conferences were so much cheaper that maybe the online format should become permanent. No! I wanted to scream. You have no idea what you’re giving up.
Does anything in this more locked down pandemic environment make up for the loss of serendipitous moments?
Right now, we are living in conditions that may never be repeated during our lifetimes, so if there is anything to gain from this crisis, we certainly don’t want to miss it. For many people, this time is filled with such pain—the loss of loved ones, the loss of finances, and other losses—that simple survival is victory enough. But many are experiencing this crisis at a level that is disheartening without being disastrous. We are working from home, cut off from social activities, church activities, and the everyday pleasures of restaurants, theaters, and other events we used to take for granted. The situation is painful, but it may also offer unexpected opportunities.
For me, the crisis has allowed me to rethink my relationship with time.
Life used to push me non-stop from one activity to another, day after day. When the crisis halted so many of those, I had to ask myself, how much of that frantic activity was really necessary? How much of it do I want back in my life when the crisis ends? Are there ways in which I should permanently simplify my life?
With the reduction of time spent in the car going back and forth from work and other activities, I have been able to focus on some projects a little more. I can work on something for hours at a time rather than jumping from one place to another all day long. I have enjoyed having some days with no scheduled events. I have enjoyed some extra time with my wife and kids. I have enjoyed long morning runs and time to read neglected books. I have learned some new things, such as how to teach remotely. I’ve had more time to read, to pray, to write some notes to people, to think, to plan.
In the same way that serendipitous encounters and meetings alter our lives during more active days, I wonder whether this crisis is also preventing some harmful serendipitous moments.
Without knowing it, maybe we’re escaping some damaging arguments that might have broken out at large family gatherings. Maybe we’re cutting off the conditions for a harmful or insulting conversation that might have happened at work. Maybe we’re setting aside distractions that were keeping us from our true purpose.
My own faith teaches me that God is present—and working—in every life circumstance, whether in good times or in a pandemic. I don’t want to miss any lesson he has for me right now, so I’m trying to make the best of it, but I have seen so many examples of how he works through “chance” encounters with others that I want us all to get back together just as soon as we safely can.
Joseph Bentz is the author of 12 New Testament Passages that Changed the World and six other books on Christian living. He is also the author of A Son Comes Home and three other novels. He is a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University in California. More information is available at his website, www.josephbentz.com.