1955 - ON CHANCELike Ronnie Hawkins, I too moved to Canada. Waking up one morning in the village of Lochwinnoch in Scotland, I realised that a metamorphosis had taken place. I had gone to bed a boy and woke up a man - it was my 20th birthday. My first thought was that life was rushing past and I had not been anywhere, done anything. Leaping out of bed, I opened the Sunday Post and noticed an ad: Find fame and fortune in Canada's North. The Hudson Bay Company was recruiting young Scots to trade for furs with the Indians and Inuit in the Canadian North. Six weeks later, I was on the dock in Montreal. I'm still here over 50 years later. That chance juxtaposition of a particular state of mind and a trivial environmental event had determined the rest of my life.
Chance in My Life
Like Elvis Presley, I too had a fateful meeting in 1955. I too met someone who had a profound influence on my life. I was selling magazines from door to door shortly after arriving in Canada. Oliver Carmichael opened one of those doors. He informed me that I could continue my education in the evenings at Sir George Williams College (at that time, just a few classes offered by the YMCA) and persuaded me to take a course in public speaking in order to sell more magazines. I continued to take courses in psychology out of interest. Interest let to competence to more interest to more competence and, a decade later, a Ph. D. in Psychology from Cornell University. Unlike Tom Parker, Oliver Carmichael did not stay around in my life (where are you now, Oliver?) but my life would have been totally different if not for that chance meeting (thank you, Oliver, wherever you are).
When I decided to go to graduate school to study psychology, I chose social psychology, because it seemed to me that individual psychology was about the person as if not a member of society and sociology was about society as if it did not consist of people. The only social psychologist I knew was Wallace Lambert at McGill University. We had the following conversation:
Where are the best places in the world to study social psychology.Five years later, after he and four other scholars had quizzed me for three hours to see how much less than God I knew, William Lambert, Chairman of my thesis committee, said "Here's your Ph. D. Congratulations. Now go off and learn something and don't embarrass me!"
A series of dreams precipitated my decision to retire at 35. I had completed a series of five year plans - five years to get my B. A., five years to get my Ph. D., and five years to write my first book. My series of dreams occurred while considering my next five-year plan. In one of them, I am climbing out of a window. A young boy is walking out a door. He turns to me and says "Cool it!" I recognise the place as the hut I lived in before leaving Scotland, and the young boy as myself at that time. The other dreams had different content but always the same message: Cool it! So I took ten years off. Once again, this was a constructive decision which seemed to have been based on chance.
When in graduate school, I worked on a project about games people play. Games differ in terms of the relative balance of skill and chance, ranging from chess, which is almost entirely skill, to bingo, which is almost entirely chance. We found that blue-collar people preferred games of chance whereas white-collar people preferred games of skill. Those choices reflected how we perceived the game of life. The bingo-players saw life as a game of chance whereas the chess-players saw life as a game of skill. This is indeed a realistic reflection of the situation they find themselves in. As a chess-player, who likes to think that I have free will and am writing my own life script, I'm embarrassed to discover that the most important decisions I made in my life were based on chance.
For someone who prides himself on being a chess player, I find myself looking more and more like a bingo player. My major decisions have been based on chance convergences of environmental events and states of mind, on change meetings when going door-to-door, on chance coincidences of names, and spooky dreams. My credentials as a rational scholar are seriously endangered. However, perhaps I can wiggle out of it by suggesting that we are dealing not so much with chance as with selective perception. My chance move to Canada, my chance meeting which had me re-enter university, my chance choice of graduate school, and my decision to take a decade off on the basis of a series of dreams all greatly enriched my life. Could it be that someone in here who is much wiser than me was making good choices?
An operating manual for species homo sapiens that I wrote in the 1960s was essentially an operating manual for the nervous system (the only subsystem which can be "operated" directly). It contained sections on biofeedback to enhance the signal from the autonomic nervous system and on meditation to reduce the noise from the central nervous system so that I could listen to the very local news from my body. I have realised, after 20 years in media studies, that I was guilty of tabula isola. Most of the operating manual should be about learning the skills and operating the tools of media as extensions of the nervous system. However, I've got so distracted by those flashy media which bring news from the outer world that I've been neglected, in practice and in theory, the news from the inner world. Those media use the distance senses of vision and audition, which tend to overshadow the close senses of taste, smell, and touch. Even those powerful distance senses are very limited. They pick up only a sliver of the electromagnetic range of stimuli. We got a glimpse of this during Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL) when special glasses enabled the American troops to see in the dark. Even when we see clearly within the limited range of human vision, we observe very little.
I once set myself to observe on the short trip from my home to my office that I had walked many times. On that trip, I noticed that three of the four corners at a busy intersection were occupied by banks, that a maternity wear store was called Great Expectations, and that there were many pigeons on the ledges of one church but none on the ledges of the church next door, even though the former church had spikes on the ledges to discourage them.2
Another "experiment" further alerted me to what a limited sliver of the information available in our environment we take in. One of my neighbours, Dr. David Sorenson, is one of the world's foremost authorities on Thomas Carlyle. When I discovered this, I knew little about Carlyle - that he was Scottish, that he lived in the nineteenth century, and that he wrote something or other - and I knew nothing about his wife, Jane Welsh. I decided to keep a Carlyle File of all my sightings of Carlyle and Welsh. This couple has since been popping up all over the place.
Richard Altick tells the famous story of the housemaid accidentally burning the manuscript of Carlyle's The French Revolution and David Denby describes the profound impact of the publication of this book after Carlyle rewrote it. Dr. Watson quotes Thomas Carlyle in A Study of Scarlett and is horrified when Sherlock Holmes claims never to have heard of him. Saul Bellow refers to Carlyle's famous essay on Robert Burns in which he writes "Let me write the songs of a people, and you may write its laws." Thomas Carlyle is quoted in a pseudo-obituary of Tiny Tim Cratchet in The Globe & Mail and in a Playboy interview of Marshall McLuhan. In an episode of Seinfeld, George tries to impress an intellectual girl friend by pretending to know about Carlyle. Whistler painted Thomas Carlyle right after he painted his mother. In The Cyborg Handbook, Carlyle is credited with labelling his own time, the Machine Age. Stephen Leacock cites Carlyle's argument that a university is just books. Alberto Manguel includes in A History of Reading an anecdote about Jane Welsh taking risqué novels out of the library and signing Erasmus Darwin. Phyllis Rose begins her study of Five Victorian Marriages with The Carlyle-Welsh courtship and ends with a description of the resulting marriage.
The Carlyle File is a useful concrete example of the phenomenon of selective perception (Sometimes called the red-headed-woman effect - you fall in love with a red-headed woman, and suddenly the world is full of red-headed women.) The significance of selective perception is that it suggests we are conscious of only that small sample of the vast amount of information potentially available to us to which we are paying attention. Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh were present in my reading before I got interested in them but I had not noticed them. Evolutionary psychologists point out that we pay attention only to that sliver of information available in our environment which is relevant to our survival. As survival becomes less crucial, we have the luxury of paying attention to the Carlyles but the same principle applies. So perhaps all those "chance" meetings, moves, and choices were due to the selective perception of that person in here who is wiser than I am. Thus those events were not chance. I was merely selecting them out of millions of events, because someone in here, who is wiser than me, recognised them as opportunities to enhance my life.
1 I discovered later that this had nothing to do with their religious preference but simply due to the fact that the pigeons traditionally rested at one church, that the spikes had been added later in an attempt to get rid of them, but this was not enough to overcome the inertia of tradition.