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rose from a wreck

A couple of decades ago, an Oregon girl’s car slid in the rain and flipped on a country road. Virtually everything else was wrecked, but she survived along with some silverware and one minor but ever-present reminder of the event.

I didn’t know that girl at the time. I didn’t know about the event for years after it happened. When I did come to know of it, the knowledge itself flowed from a fairly random convergence of events.

This morning, with my three-year-old snoring next to me, I set the book I was reading on my stomach and thought about the tenuousness of past events that led to this life.

My entire life would be different had that Oregon girl not arisen, basically fine, from a wreck.

(Had she not, I would never have known the difference. How strange!)

I crossed paths with that Oregon girl in my early 20s. We happened to train at the same dojo, and she happened to ask me–soon after our first real conversation and without having planned to ask–if I wanted to join her family for a vacation weekend away.

I went. We had a blast. Our friendship was cemented, and the adventures we’d have would prove foundational for … the rest of my entire life to come, though I didn’t know it at the time.

(She later told me she wasn’t sure what possessed her to ask. She’d never done anything like that before. Family vacations were for family and serious boyfriends!)

Eventually, that girl and I drove to visit another friend in Los Angeles. 

I spent most the drive down thinking, in a state of delirious, exultant shock, things like, “I am on a road trip. With a friend! I grew up poor and broken, but now I’m the kind of person who goes on road trips with friends!” I cried a lot that trip, but my friend already well knew and cherished my propensity for happy tears.

By the time we left L.A., I knew I’d be back. I’d had the best time of my life on our trip, and had come to understand something I never had before: I could go. I could move. I could live in Los Angeles! I’d grown up poor, but my past didn’t have to reflect my future! 

Before, I’d seen closed doors most places I looked. That trip, I started seeing open doors everywhere.

When my husband and I drove our kids north for Thanksgiving 2017, I teared up at the sight of one particular rest stop along the I-5. I remembered stopping there on that first trip, all those years ago, totally unwitting to how many times I’d later make the trip and thank God (or, for a time, the universe) for it.

That first trip down was most of two decades ago, but as I drove north this time, it felt like part of me was making that first trip south for the very first time. I could practically see us getting back into her car for the last leg of our trip.

As I drove north this time, I drove north with a family that wouldn’t have existed if I’d never visited Los Angeles. If I’d never fallen so in love with it–and the warmth I felt, from sun and friendship–that I decided I’d move (t)here, someday. I’d never have actually moved (t)here, and met, right before moving to Japan, the L.A. man who’d later become my husband.

I might be perfectly happy in another world where
that Oregon girl never rose from her car accident,
never invited me to spend a weekend with her family,
never went on a road trip to L.A. with me,
never visited L.A.-law-student-me with the man who’s now her husband,
never became sister to me and another of my sisters.

But the thing is: I love this life. I love what’s grown from random strands of happenstance–a few of which I can see, and many, many more I cannot.

Before I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Incerto series, I didn’t know to call “paths” each of these strands where choices actually made diverged from all the choices that could’ve been made. I just understood that the sequence of strands I’d followed was never inevitable; that I was lucky as hell to follow certain strands to the exact life I live now.

I’d try to explain it, sometimes, how lucky this-me-who-followed-these-strands was. But, often, I saw that people perceive as inevitable that which actually happened. Many have never pictured frail strands leading us all to here-and-now conversation, or envisioned the ways their lives would have been dramatically different had any of those strands been severed. Those paths foreclosed.

Taleb writes a lot about the ways people misperceive reality. One of the ways we do so is by assuming that a sequence of lots of yesterdays helps us predict today. Today is just tomorrow’s yesterday, nicht wahr?

He uses the example of a Thanksgiving turkey. Each day, the turkey’s showered with a little more love and grows even more comfortable that he’s got a good thing going. Each and every day he lives so far confirms a little more how he’s one lucky turkey!

Unfortunately, one day, the turkey’s going to get a great big (and very unpleasant) surprise. It’s going to be a surprise he couldn’t have predicted based on data from all his yesterdays. He’s experienced what’s a Black Swan–a highly consequential, unpredicted event–to him, but not to those who’ve been making sure he’s Thanksgiving plump.

In mid-October, I wrote a post I simply called “danger.”

I’d played part in creating the possibility of very, very negative outcomes by getting out of my car despite thinking, “I shouldn’t get out of the car.”

My thinking as I climbed out of my car was something like, “Man, I’ve stopped at ATMs hundred of times in my life and never once had a problem. No biggie.”

That was turkey thinking right there. Sure, I’ve stopped at ATMs hundreds of times over the years, but all those other times had something in common: I wasn’t nervous based on perceptions of the specific environment.

This time, I’d exposed myself to a personal Black Swan: a highly consequential-to-me outcome whose possibility wouldn’t have existed if I’d entertained its possibility and simply driven away.

I knew about Black Swans and Thanksgiving turkeys, risk, and the importance of taking small precautions to protect myself from the possibility of large, devastating outcomes. I knew in the abstract, but somehow didn’t translate that knowing to my actions.

Fortunately, I did drive away from that ATM. I avoided going down any of the paths that could have resulted–in part–from me thinking “I shouldn’t get out of my car,” and then getting out anyway.

But I now understand better the non-inevitability of paths. I understand that I was lucky to have followed the exact path I did, away.

thought I’d understood Taleb’s cautionary tales, but I hadn’t acted like it. That gap could have made a profoundly consequential difference to me.

A couple of decades ago, an Oregon girl’s car slid in the rain and flipped on a country road. Virtually everything else was wrecked, but she survived along with some silverware and one minor but ever-present reminder of the event.

Somewhere out there, a billion other versions of me might be living very different lives. Some might be their own kinds of magical; others, very grim. I can’t speak to those billions of other lives I haven’t lived; I don’t even know what’s going to happen an hour from now in this world, with all the data I’ve collected about it. Forget about trying to envision all the possibilities in other ones!

What I do know is this: the version of life I’m living right now is what it is, in part, because a girl I didn’t even know then once rose from a wreck on an Oregon country road.

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  1. December 3, 2017 at 4:38 pm

    Wow! What a profound post and beautifully written.

  2. December 7, 2017 at 9:35 pm

    Beautiful. I love the concept of parallel universes … love it but also don’t love it. I’m very aware of some of the places along my path where I’ve made a choice that said “Here! Not there!” Sometimes … I think about them and wonder…

  1. December 5, 2017 at 12:43 pm

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