Perhaps our thinking exemplifies a selective system. First lots of random scattered ideas compete for survival. Then comes the selection for what works best—one idea dominates, and this is followed by its amplification. Perhaps the moral…is that you never learn anything unless you are willing to take a risk and tolerate a little randomness in your life.

—Heinz Pagels, The Dreams of Reason

If we go back far enough in the English language, random likely comes from the Old English word rinnan for “to flow, to run.” Isn’t that something? Because if I want to break out of my usual way of thinking or out of my usual way of behaving, I might tell myself just to “go with the flow,” and, yes, even though I am a middle-aged woman with a list (typed, even; and very, very long; covering many, many months) and with a permanent but changing-daily yellow sticky note made by consulting The List and then stuck to current books being toted from here to there to remind me of this day’s important things, I still value The Random.

I think this is what the twentieth-century American physicist Heinz Pagels is saying–we need the random things that are not already included on our lists, not on my mental list (my brain’s usual way of thinking) and not on my physical list (my body’s usual way of behaving).

(I think of how Richard Feynman was just flipping something up in the air when something about how it flipped helped him see the potential O-ring problem with the Challenger. He went and put the O-ring material in some ice water. I don’t remember the details. I’m no physicist, duh, but I heard Feynman talk about it on TV once, how a simple random act led to the thought that perhaps ice-cold temps could make the O-ring material less resilient and more likely to result in seal failure.)

Feynman’s mind was not fossilized, nor was he given to ego-driven thinking. Instead, his mind was resilient and spirited and open to The Random.

It is this kind of thinking that I pray for in my minute-to-minute living.

I am such a creature of habit. I find what I like, I find what helps me cope, and/or I find what is the best way (so I think), and I stick with it.

Sometimes, the only way I change is for my “best way” not to work anymore or for my coping behavior to start failing. I have a good friend in Paradise Valley, Arizona, who is a spiritual director and a wise woman, and she says, “Don’t waste a good crisis.”

A crisis is not really synonymous with randomness, but a crisis of any sort does open me (anyway) up to new ways of being that do often drop into my life “randomly” and then instead of zipping blindly right past them because I’m in my rigid “groove,” my falling-apart has allowed those random seeds to slip into my life.

I remember being in complete agonizing bodily pain for many years and trying this and that until finally hearing about deep-tissue massage; so while living in California, my pain opened me up to try massage (not my cup of tea initially). So I spent several years being rolfed by the amazing Karen S. Price, and one evening after getting rolfed earlier that day in Palo Alto, I went to bed and noticed as I lay there that my head was in a slightly new angle. That may sound small, but for me it was a huge sign of other changes yet to come.

Another fairly direct (but wonderful) route into randomness is falling in love. I tried restaurants and plays and movies that were totally random to me, and I know that Sean did the same. To this day, I see movies he suggests that would never occur to me, and these stretch me and enrich my life (when I absolutely love them and when I don’t).

Children also provide randomness. My daughter decided a few years ago that I was too dowdy to be seen with in public. Now, I see what she meant. But I am an English teacher (I used to say to myself). Dowdy is what I thought was represented by the “D” in Ph.D. You know–firemen wear protective coveralls, helmets, and masks to extinguish fires; I wore frumpy clothes to stamp out comma splices. Same thing. Each profession has its clothing requirements.

But to avoid a daughter-submitted appearance on What Not to Wear and to stop her constant and articulate critiques of my clothes, I started allowing random new items of clothing to drop into my wardrobe while I moved others out and gave them away.

Meanwhile, my son has introduced me to any number of random facts from Star Wars and Star Trek and Minecraft, to name just a few.

And sometimes I just sit and watch the traffic go by. That is a good way to catch The Random. Or I read a book. Another good way to spy The Random. Or I listen to my daughter’s music or to my favorite music (but really listen). Or I get on google after I’ve heard an interview on NPR, and I look up an author’s books and read all about her life and suddenly find I am reading a book by her first husband, the physicist quoted at the beginning of this blog.

The Random used to scare me.

But as I grow as a person, my boundaries become healthier. Well, let’s say that first I had to discover that I have boundaries, and now, yes, they are becoming healthier. And as I embrace and love my boundaries, I find that more and more I let the random in, and it appears in my life rather like jonquils and forsythia growing in spring, yellow and soft and fragrant with the perfume of hope.

So my life has fewer and fewer interruptions, as I become more willing to embrace that which I did not anticipate.

I am learning to rest in the certain joy of “going with the flow.”

About Carmen

I teach English at Shorter College in beautiful Rome, Georgia.
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