Is Life Random?


For years now, when the first weekend in August rolls around, we make the 50 mile drive to Eureka Springs, Arkansas for a city wide yard sale. Never mind that’s it’s usually about a zillion degrees that weekend, or that in recent years there seem to be fewer and fewer sales, Eureka is a such a charming artistic town, we’re willing to melt into our shoes for a few hours while prowling through other people’s junk.

So my wife Ann, daughter Samantha and I happily drove around for hours in the heat in a car with no AC, and I ended up buying only one thing, a book by Donald Miller titled A Million Miles In A Thousand Years. I bought it at a yard sale at a place called the Village Writing School. I’m not sure why I bought it. Sometimes, you do things for reasons that aren’t clear. I’d never heard of the book or the author, even though he’s a NYT bestselling writer. Mostly I picked it out of the many books there because I had an intuitive moment, and intuitive moments don’t happen to me that often, so when one pops up, I try to be receptive.

No, intuition isn’t my thing. I leave that to women, mothers, psychics, mediums, and all those attuned to the cosmic message. Actually, intuition kind of goes against my core beliefs. I’ve always thought that life is random, that we’re like dust motes floating on the breeze.

Intuition is evidence that our existence isn’t random, that there is some kind of order in the universe, that things happen for a reason. Lots of people believe that’s the way it is but I’ve never been one of them.

Occasionally, though, something happens that is so serendipitous, that it makes me question the randomness of everything. And when that happens, it always catches me by surprise and gets my brain sparking.

So I took the book home and as often happens, I let it lay around for a while. I do that a lot and I’m not sure why. It’s not like books are like wine or cheese and will get better with age. Maybe it’s because I’m a picky reader, and I reject most of the books I start reading. And even though I’d had a small intuitive moment when I found the book, I really don’t have much faith in my intuitive ability. Intuition, or the lack of it, has often failed me. For example, when VCRs first came out, there were two formats, VHS and Beta. I, of course, bought a Betamax. I had a 50-50 chance of getting that one right and I blew it, despite pretty good odds of getting it right, even without any help from my atrophied intuition. Failures like that have made me skeptical that intuition works, at least for me.

Finally, though, I picked up the book and started reading it and it spoke to me directly in a way that made my mind race and even do a few cartwheels. Donald Miller is a fine writer, funny, insightful, touching, and thought provoking. But best of all, this was a book about how to be a good storyteller, and that’s been an almost obsessive drive for me nearly all my life.

I’m about halfway through the book now, and I’m reading it in sips, savoring the words, stretching it out as long as I can. The book has made me stop and think about some big things. Like what are the chances of finding something that opens some portals for you at a yard sale 50 miles from home, a random purchase based on a hunch that you had little faith in?

I know it doesn’t sound like much. I found a book that turns me on. Big deal. But new insights are a big deal.. As our opinions get hardened by time, finding something that challenges your ideas and gets you thinking is a kind of epiphany. Most people seek out information that supports what they already think, and no new ground is broken when you keep plowing the same old patch of dirt.

And I know it’s a small thing, but having this book fall into my hands seems like the exact opposite of a random event. It seems like it was meant to happen, like the book was lying there waiting for me to come find it, that it was custom written for me, that Donald Miller wrote the damn thing with me in mind. Of course, I know that’s not true but that’s how it feels, and that feeling doesn’t come along very often.

Maybe, just maybe, it all isn’t totally just hit or miss. I still think life is mostly random, that we’re just bouncing around like pinballs, lighting up lights and ringing bells without a clue how we did it. But it’s nice to know that occasionally, there’s magic mixed with the mayhem.