My wife and I have been married for 31 years. Looking back, it was meant to be.
But almost certainly that's an illusion, because life only seems predictable after things already have happened. And even that is an illusion.
To understand why, let's look more closely at how Laurel and I met.
The way I usually describe this is true, yet incomplete: I responded to a personals ad Laurel placed in Willamette Week back when the Portland alternative paper only came in a print edition.
In a 2016 post on my Church of the Churchless blog, "Who's afraid of The Big Bad Contingent World? Sartre, but not me!", I provided a wider perspective on how Laurel and I got together.
Here's a true tale about my life that does a pretty good job of illustrating the philosophical notion of "contingency." I related it in a comment on my 2006 post, "Breaking free of family influences."
I graduated with a useless BA in psychology and was contemplating applying for an appropriately menial job. Then I overheard a conversation in the San Jose State cafeteria.
"Man, I can't do anything with a psych degree. And it takes at least three years to get a Ph.D." His friend replied, "You should get a M.S.W. It's just two years, and there are good jobs available after you graduate."
I had no idea what a M.S.W. was. I went to the library and looked it up. Everyone was talking about beautiful green Oregon, so I applied to the only school of social work in the state. Was admitted. Thirty-six years later, I'm still here.
A brief overheard conversation. My life heads off in a new direction. Go figure. I sure can't.
Seemingly, if I hadn't been in a certain spot in the San Jose State cafeteria at a specific time, in just the right location to overhear this conversation, I never would have applied to the Portland State University School of Social Work, never graduated with a M.S.W. and gotten a job at the Oregon Health Sciences University as a research associate, never moved to Salem to work for the State Health Planning and Development Agency, never met my second wife through her personals ad in Willamette Week, and, in general, never had the life I've lived here in Oregon since 1971.
That's contingency. Which is opposed to necessity.
Now, I realize that many people believe in fate or destiny. Others believe that God is pulling the strings of their life, and they're just a puppet in His/Her hands.
I'm sympathetic to those views, since I used to believe in the Eastern notion of karma, which can be close to destiny if one assumes that a "karmic account" has to be brought into balance over various lifetimes through reincarnation.
But now I'm an atheist. I believe in science, not the supernatural.
So even though I believe in determinism -- causes and effects in accord with the laws of nature -- I also accept that these causes and effects are so complex, so contingent, so dependent on small changes in conditions, such as me arriving at the San Jose State College cafeteria just a few seconds earlier or later, there is no way to predict how life will go in advance.
Which doesn't stop us from thinking this is possible.
Most people, me included, certainly, visualize a certain life trajectory for themselves. While the details are uncertain, we enjoy feeling that the broad outline of our future will unfold in a fairly specific fashion. I'll live here, either alone or with this person, doing this sort of thing, with my health and happiness being pretty much like such-and-such.
What I find amazing is that even though I know that by and large I've been unable to predict the course of my life in advance, I still believe that I can do this looking forward from right now.
Thus when things don't turn out as well as I expected, often I feel a sense of unfairness -- as if life had made a promise to me that was broken. But actually I was the one who had predicted the future, not life.
(Life isn't a being capable of making promises, obviously.)
This irrationality -- expecting the future to be much more predictable than it actually is -- applies to every area of life. Politics, for example.
Today I watched Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. A central theme was President Biden's approval rating dropping considerably in August due to peoples' concerns about Covid and Afghanistan.
Someone on the show said that back on July 4 Biden had said that Covid restrictions weren't needed any more. Now they are, and Biden is being blamed for this.
However, the rise of the Delta variant wasn't nearly as clear two months ago, nor was the refusal of a large percentage of Americans to get vaccinated, or how strongly many Republican governors would resist public health measures like wearing a mask.
Sure, in retrospect signs of all that were evident. At the time, though, the future looked quite different.
Likewise, Biden is being criticized for how the pullout from Afghanistan was handled. Yet the pundits doing the criticizing on cable news hadn't predicted that the Afghan military and government would collapse in just eleven days or so, causing the withdrawal of our citizens and allies to be much more chaotic.
There's nothing wrong with looking back and trying to learn from history, whether it be the history of our single life or the history of an entire nation.
However, it's important to remember that history, and life, only makes sense after events already have happened. And decidedly imperfectly even then, because we necessarily have to pick and choose among a myriad of causes and conditions which are most pertinent to explaining how things ended up.
Bottom line: life largely is a mystery, whether looking backward or forward (but especially forward). So we should temper our expectations about how our life will go, since that's uncertain.
For this reason, being as appreciative and mindful as possible in the present moment strikes me as wise, since the next moment may be worse. Or better. Likely not exactly the same, though.