On Contingencies

On Contingencies

For many years I have been clear about the contingent nature of life- ever since (back in the 1970’s) I read the opening of a passage of Simone De Beauvoir’s All Said and Done. She writes:

Every morning before I open my eyes, I know I am in my bedroom and my bed…I wake up with a childish feeling of astonishment- why am I myself? What astonishes me..is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment,, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance brought this about?… It seems to me that a thousand different futures might have stemmed from every single movement of my past; I might have fallen ill and broken off my studies; I might not have met Sartre [the philosopher]; anything at all might have happened. Tossed into the world, I have been subjected to its laws and contingencies, ruled by will other than by own, by circumstances and by history; it is therefore reasonable for me to suggest that I am myself contingent. What staggers me is at the same time I am not myself contingent.

Simone De Beauvoir: All Said and Done

This is not a simple idea. Life depends on all manner of choices, chances and constraints. It is shaped by many unforeseen events that then have enormous social consequences. Life is simultaneously hugely determined by major biological, personal and social forces; yet it is also much less determined than some science suggests. Small chance factors can have huge causal power. And equally many contingencies can pile up into regular sequences and patterns to become almost unnoticed. Choice and chance can become causality and determinism. Oddly this idea of contingency – deserving surely of a full blown sociological theory and philosophical account – lacks one. Life is fragile and precarious.  We all suffer all the time from contingencies. Chance happenstances are the stuff of our everyday lives. Yet we do not understand this very well.

The central role of contingency is a popular theme in history and art. Consider Peter Howitt’s film Sliding Doors (1998)- which stars  Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah. Here the central character Helen is sacked from her job and returning home at an unusual hour, she rushes to catch the tube train. And in one moment the film depicts one reality in which she just manages to squeeze through the sliding doors and get on the train; and in another depiction – a second moment or reality shows her missing the train. But it is a decisive moment. With the first moment she meets ‘James’ on the tube but  gets home to find her boyfriend, Gerry, cheating on her with his ex-girlfriend. Following the other moment, Helen misses the tube train, gets mugged, goes to hospital and eventually arrives home to find her partner all alone! At that one tiny moment – a second, a contingency – her life is full of different possibilities. And in the film, the two moments –shaping two realities – move forward in parallel with radically different outcomes.  The first moment means that Helen leaves Gerry and forms a positive delightful loving relationship with James; .the other shows Helen’s life taking bad turns, as her boy friend continues to cheat on her. A moment in life makes a huge difference. Classically, it is that moment when we cheerfully leave the front door of our house, and are then run down by a passing lorry. You can never tell; anything could happen. Moments really do matter. Possibilities are everywhere for things to be different from what they are.

There are many films and stories which tell similar tales. The fragility of the moments of life is a persistent and popular theme. One recent writer, Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The  Black Swan, has turned the idea into a best selling one. And yet most of the time – most days of our life- we stave off the wider possibilities of our existence and their shaping through chance occurrences because of our persistent tendency to make social habits.  The huge potential and risk of human existence is turned into daily routine – narrowed by the fly wheel of habit. The buzzing booming confusion of the world is channelled down so that most of our lives – most of our days- we follow well patterned habits. We cannot stand too much life and we have to restrict our daily potentials into well formed routines – in behaviour, in thoughts, in feelings. Crudely we become zombie like. But this does not stop the many precarious moments harbouring full scale chance possibilities of change.

The film: Sliding Images

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