posted by Caroline Picard, Written by Alain de Bottom and transcribed by Rachel Shine
Alain de Botton
1. The longing for a destiny is nowhere stronger than in our romantic life. All too often forced to share our bed with those who cannot fathom our soul, can we not be forgiven if we believe ourselves fated to stumble one day upon the man or woman of our dreams? Can we not be excused a certain superstitious faith in a creature who will prove the solution to our restless yearnings? And though our prayers may never be answered, though there may be no end to the dismal cycle of mutual incomprehension, if the heavens should come to take pity on us, then can we really be expected to attribute the encounter with this prince or princess to mere coincidence? Or can we not for once escape rational censure and read it as nothing other than an inevitable part of our romantic destiny?
2. One midmorning in early December, with no thought of love or story, I was sitting in the economy section of a British Airways jet making its way from Paris to London. We had recently crossed the Normandy coast, where a blanket of winter cloud had given way to an uninterrupted view of brilliant blue waters. Bored and unable to concentrate, I had picked up the airline magazine, passively imbibing information on resort hotels and airport facilities. There was something comforting about the flight, the dull background throb of the engines, the hushed gray interior, the candy smiles of the airline employees. A trolley carrying a selection of drinks and snacks was making its way down the aisle and, though I was neither hungry nor thirsty, it filled me with vague anticipation that meals may elicit in aircraft.
3. Perhaps rather morbidly, the passenger on my left had taken off her headphones in order to study the safety-instruction card placed in the pouch in front of her. It depicted the ideal crash: passengers alighting softly and calmly onto land or water, the ladies taking off their high heels, the children dexterously inflating their vests, the fuselage still intact, the kerosene miraculously nonflammable.
4. “We’re all going to die if this thing screws up, so what are these jokers talking about?” asked the passenger, addressing no one in particular.
“I think perhaps it reassures people,” I replied, for I was her only audience.
“Mind you, it’s not a bad way to go, very quick, especially if we hit land and you’re sitting in the front. I had an uncle who died in a plane crash once. Has anyone you’ve ever known died like that?”
They hadn’t, but I had no time to answer, for a stewardess arrived and [unaware of the ethical doubts recently cast on her employers] offered us lunch. I asked for a glass of orange juice and was going to decline a plate of pale sandwiches when my traveling companion whispered to me,
“Take them anyway. I’ll eat yours, I’m starving.”
5. She had chestnut-colored hair, cut short so that it left the nape of her neck exposed, and large watery green eyes that refused to look into mine. She was wearing a blue blouse and had placed a gray cardigan over her knees. Her shoulders were slim, almost fragile, and the rawness of her nails showed they were often chewed.
“Are you sure I’m not depriving you?”
“I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced myself, my name is Chloe,” she announced and extended her hand across the armrest with somewhat touching formality.
An exchange of biography followed; Chloe told me she had been in Paris in order to attend a trade fair. For the past year, she had been working as a graphic designer at the Royal College of Art, had been born in York but moved to Wiltshire as a child, and was now [at the age of twenty-three] living alone in a flat in Islington.
6. “I hope they haven’t lost my luggage,” said Chloe as the plane began to drop toward Heathrow. “Don’t you have that fear, that they’ll lose your luggage?”
“I don’t think about it, but it’s happened to me, twice in fact—once in New York and once in Frankfurt.”
“God, I hate traveling,” sighed Chloe and bit the end of her index finger. “I hate arriving even more, I get real arrival angst. After I’ve been away for a while, I always think something terrible has happened in my absence, a water pipe burst, or I’ve lost my job, or my cacti have died.”
“You keep cacti?”
“Several. I went through a phase. Phallic, I know, but I spent a winter in Arizona and sort of got fascinated by them. Do you keep pets?”
“I used to have some fish.”
“What happened to them?”
“I was living with a girlfriend a few years ago. I think she got jealous or something, because one day she turned off the thing that ventilates the tank and they all died.”
7. The conversation meandered, affording us glimpses of one another’s characters, like the brief vistas one catches on a winding mountain road—this before the wheels hit the tarmac, the engines were thrown into reverse thrust, and the plane taxied toward the terminal, where it disgorged its cargo into the crowded immigration hall. By the time I had collected my luggage and passed through customs, I had fallen in love with Chloe.
8. Until one is actually dead [and then it must be considered impossible], it is difficult to consider anyone as the love of one’s life. But only shortly after meeting her, it seemed in no way out of place to think of Chloe in such terms. I cannot with any assurance say why, out of all the available emotions and all their possible recipients, it should suddenly have been love I felt for her. I cannot claim to know the inner dynamics of this process, nor validate these words with anything other than the authority of lived experience. I can only report that a few days after my return to London, Chloe and I spent the afternoon together. Then, a few weeks before Christmas, we had dinner in a West London restaurant and, as though it was both the strangest and the most natural thing to do, ended the evening making love in her apartment. She spent Christmas with her family, I went to Scotland with friends, but we found ourselves calling one another every day—sometimes as many as five times a day—not to say anything in particular, simply because both of us felt that we had never spoken like this to anyone before, that all the rest had been compromise and self-deception, that only now were we finally able to understand and make ourselves understood—that the waiting [messianic in nature] was truly over. I recognized in her the woman I had been clumsily seeking all my life, a being whose qualities had been foreshadowed in my dreams, whose smile and whose eyes, whose sense of humor and whose taste in books, whose anxieties and whose intelligence perfectly matched those of my ideal.
9. It was perhaps because I came to feel we were so right for one another [she did not just finish my sentences, she completed my life] that I was unable to contemplate the idea that meeting Chloe had been simply a coincidence. I lost the ability to consider the question of predestination with the ruthless skepticism some would say it demanded. Not normally superstitious, Chloe and I seized upon a host of details, however trivial, as confirmation of what intuitively we both felt: that we had been destined for one another. We learnt that both of us had been born around midnight [she at 11:45 P.M., I at 1:15 A.M.] in the same month of an even-numbered year. Both of us had played clarinet and had had parts in school productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream [she had played Helena, I had played an attendant to Theseus]. Both of us had two large freckles on the toe of the left foot and a cavity in the same rear molar. Both of us had a habit of sneezing in bright sunlight and of drawing ketchup out of its bottle with a knife. We even had the same copy of Anna Karenina on our shelves [the old Oxford edition]—small details perhaps, but were they not grounds enough on which believers could found a new religion?
10. Sublimating existence into meaning, we attributed to time a narrative sense it did not inherently possess. Chloe and I mythologized our aircraft encounter into Aphrodite’s design, act 1, scene 1, of that most classic and mythic narrative configuration—the love story. From the time of each of our births, it seemed as though the giant mind in the sky had been subtly shifting our orbits so that we would meet one day on the Paris-London shuttle. Because it had come true for us, we could overlook the countless stories that fail to occur, romances that never get written because someone misses the plane or loses the phone number. Like historians, we were unmistakably on the side of what happened, oblivious to the chance nature of every situation, and hence guilty of constructing grand narratives, the Hegels and Spenglers of our own lives. Playing the narrator [the one who comes after the event], we had alchemized the airline meeting into a purposeful event, ascribing to our lives an implausible degree of causality. In so doing, we were guilty of a most mystical, or [to put it more kindly] literary step.
11. We should, of course, been more rational. Neither Chloe nor I flew regularly between the two capitals, nor had we been planning our respective trips for any length of time. Chloe had been sent to Paris at the last minute by her magazine after the deputy editor happened to fall sick, and I had gone only because an architectural assignment in Bordeaux had happened to finish early enough for me to spend a few days there with my sister. The two national airlines running services between Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow airports offered us a choice of six flights between nine o’clock and lunchtime on our intended day of return. Given that we both wanted to be back in London by the early afternoon of December 6, but were unresolved until the very last minute as to what flight we would end up taking, the mathematical probability at dawn of us both being on the same flight [though not necessarily in adjoining seats] had been a figure of one in thirty-six.
12. Chloe later told me that she had planned to take the ten-thirty Air France flight, but a bottle of shampoo in her bag had happened to leak as she was checking out of her room, which had meant repacking the bag and wasting a valuable ten minutes. By the time the hotel had produced her bill, cleared her credit card, and found her a taxi, it was already nine-fifteen, and the chances that she would make the ten-thirty Air France had receded. When she reached the airport after heavy traffic near the Porte de la Villette, the flight had finished boarding and, because she did not feel like waiting for the next Air France, she went over to the British Airways terminal, where she booked herself on the ten-forty-five plane to London, on which [for my own set of reasons] I happened also to have a seat.
13. Thereafter, the computer so juggled things that it placed Chloe over the wing of the aircraft in seat 15A and I next to her in seat 15B. What we had ignored when we began speaking over the safety-instruction card was the miniscule probability that our discussion would occur at all. As neither of us was likely to fly Club Class, and as there were a hundred and ninety-one economy-class seats and Chloe had been assigned seat 15A and I, quite by chance, had been assigned seat 15B, the theoretical probability that Chloe and I would be seated next to one another [though the chances of our actually talking to one another could not be calculated] worked itself out as 110 in 17,847, a figure reducible to a probability of one in 162.245.
14. But this was, of course, only the probability that we would have been seated together if there had been just one flight between Paris and London; but as there were six, and as both of us had hesitated between these six and yet had chosen this one, the probability had to be further multiplied by the original one chance in thirty-six, giving a final probability that Chloe and I would meet one December morning over the English Channel in a British Airways Boeing as one chance in 5840.82.
Pflight = 1/36
Pseat = 110/17,847 = 1/162.245
Pflight X Pseat = 1/36 X 1/162.245 = 1/5840.82
15. And yet it happened. The calculation, far from convincing us of the rational arguments, only backed up the mystical interpretation of our fall into love. If the chances behind an event are enormously remote, yet the event occurs nevertheless, may one not be forgiven for invoking a fatalistic explanation? Flipping a coin, a probability of one in two prevents my turning to God to account for a head or a tail. But when it is a question of a probability as small as the one in which Chloe and I were implicated, a probability of one in 5840.82, it seemed impossible, from within love at least, that it could have been anything but fate. It would have taken a steady mind to contemplate without superstition the enormous improbability of a meeting that had turned out to alter our lives. Someone [at 30,000 feet] must have been pulling strings in the sky.
16. There are two approaches one can take to account for events lying in the realm of chance. The philosophical view limits itself to primary reasons, adhering to the law of Occam’s razor, which states that reasons behind events must be pared down so they are not multiplied beyond strict casual necessity. This means looking for reasons most immediately explaining what has happened—in my case, the probability that Chloe and I had been assigned adjoining seats on the same flight, not the position of Mars in relation to the sun, or the plot structure of a romantic destiny. But the mystical approach cannot resist tampering with wider theories of the universe. A mirror falls off the wall and splinters into a thousand pieces. Why has this happened? What can this mean? For the philosopher, it means nothing but the fact that a light earthquake and certain forces obeying the laws of physics have conspired [according to a calculable probability] to bring down the mirror at just this point. But for the mystic, the broken mirror is filled with meaning, an ominous sign of no less than seven years’ bad luck, divine retribution for a thousand sins and herald of a thousand punishments.
17. In a world where God died a hundred years ago and computers, not oracles, predict the future, romantic fatalism veers dangerously toward mysticism. For me to have clung to the idea that Chloe and I had been fated to run into one another on an airplane in order then to fall in love implied attachment to a primitive belief system on the level of tea-leaf reading or crystal-ball gazing. If God did not play dice, He or She certainly did not run a dating service.
18. However, surrounded by chaos, we are understandably led to temper the full horror of contingency by suggesting that certain things happen to us because they have to, thereby giving the mess of life a sustaining purposiveness and direction. Though the dice may roll any number of ways, we frantically draw up patterns of necessity, never more than when it is the inevitability that one day we will fall in love. We are forced to believe that this meeting with our redeemer, objectively haphazard and hence unlikely, has been prewritten in a scroll slowly unwinding in the sky, and that time must therefore eventually [however reticent it has been till now] reveal to us the figure of our chosen one. What lies behind this tendency to read this as part of a destiny? Perhaps only its opposite, the anxiety of contingency, the fear that the little sense there is in our lives is merely created by ourselves, that there is no scroll [and hence no preordained face awaiting] and that what may or may not be happening to us [whom we may or may not be meeting on airplanes] has no sense beyond what we chose to attribute to it—in short, the anxiety that there is no God to tell our story and hence assure our loves.
19. Romantic fatalism was no doubt a myth and an illusion, but that was no reason to dismiss it as nonsense. Myths may assume an importance that goes beyond their primary message; we don’t have to believe in Greek gods in order to know that they tell us something vital about the mind of man. It was absurd to suppose that Chloe and I had been fated to meet, but it was forgivable that we should have thought things were so destined. In our native belief, we were only defending ourselves against the thought that we might equally well have begun loving someone else had the airline computer juggled things differently, a thought that was inconceivable when love is so bound up with the uniqueness of the beloved. How could I have imagined that the roll Chloe came to play in my life could equally well have been filled by someone else, when it was with her eyes that I had fallen in love, and her way of lighting a cigarette and of kissing, and of answering the phone and combing her hair?
20. Through romantic fatalism, we avoid the unthinkable thought that the need to love is always prior to our love for anyone in particular. Our choice of partner necessarily operates within the bounds of whom we happen to meet and, given different bounds, different flights, different historical periods or events, it might not have been Chloe I would have loved at all—something I could not contemplate now that is was her I had actually begun to love. My mistake had been to confuse a destiny to love with a destiny to love a given person. It was the error of thinking that Chloe, rather than love, was inevitable.
21. But my fatalistic interpretation of the beginning of our story was at least proof of one thing: that I was in love with Chloe. The moment when I would feel our meeting or not meeting was, in the end, only an accident, only a probability of one in 5840.82, would also be the moment when I would have ceased to feel the absolute necessity of a life with her—and thereby ceased to love her.