Monday, October 06, 2008

Misfortune, Serendipity, and Life

For those of you who don't know (which is probably most of you), I recently sent one of the stories I have written out to an anthology, hoping to get my name in print somewhere. Today I received back a very kind, very encouraging, but unavoidably negative response. The part that I most particularly am struck by is the very beginning:

"I found [your story] to be a touching and charming story, with much to recommend it. Indeed, I am rather hard pressed to say what it is that causes me to pass on it."

The kind editor goes on to say that he thinks the anthology, in general, is a good match for my work and that he hopes I find someplace to publish the story I sent in. As I said, very kind and very encouraging. But it brings into bright, shining contrast something else I've been thinking of lately, which is the fact that so much of life seems not designed and not determined but simply arbitrary and random. The rest of my life is conspiring to reinforce that feeling as well, drawing me towards the inevitable conclusion of the absurdity of the universe: there is no reason, things just happen.

It's strange, because finally I feel like I've reached the point Camus wanted to reach; where absurdism is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, where it just is. Good things just happen, and bad things just happen, and things -- of all sorts -- just happen. It would be easy to say that I am feeling existential doubt because I have received a rejection letter, and that I will get over my short-lived depression soon enough, and go back to being a grownup rather than a teenager filled with Sartre and Camus.

But I don't think that I failed; that's the interesting thing. Failure would have been a form-letter: "Thank you for your submission of [Title]. We are sorry to say that we will not be printing it in [Anthology]. Good luck in your further endeavors." But the fact of the matter was, the editor admitted that I had written a successful story that was a good fit for the anthology. My writing was a success, my discriminating taste at where to submit my story was a success, and the fact that I will not be published is simple arbitrary fact.

There is also the point that I am not, at base, afraid of failure. Indeed, being bad at something often reinforces my will to get better: I would likely not have taught myself how to sing had my mother not told me I was tone-deaf. I would likely never have learned how to ride a bike had I not been faced with the fact that my little brother could do it, I couldn't, and no one thought I would ever learn. My anger, in both of those cases, allowed me to prove everyone wrong and become competent.

But there is no anger in this case. I find I cannot get angry with the kind editor who liked my story and rejected it simply because certain things happen - stories are rejected, bike tires go flat, trains come early or late, it rains in Palo Alto. It was his choice, but to my experience he is simply the hand of the arbitrary, and absurd, universe.

And I don't know if I want to (or if it is even possible to) translate this into anger and become "good" at getting published. Everything I have heard, and everything I have read, on the subject says the same thing -- who is published and who is not is essentially arbitrary, the basic mirror of the absurd universe. No one is good at it except someone whose name is well-known: someone with a well-known name will naturally be more readily published, and naturally be more readily read. But most of us are not in that lucky (and also arbitrary) position.

I feel, increasingly, that this is mirrored in my social life. I have found a group of friends (miraculously? more rightly, serendipitously) at Stanford, and am active and sociable on weekends, and it seems like I fell into it -- that this group was none of my own doing. I see people who have not fallen into such groups, who are aliens or wallflowers or outcasts. And I cannot tell any quantitative difference between them and me. It seems like something outside myself, some (in this case, lucky) roll of the dice that allowed me to have a group of people to hang out with while others are exiled, or bypassed, or avoided, by the same group.

Or the conversation(s) I have had about relatively sparse love lives -- no matter how much work (if it should be called work, I guess) you put into finding someone, there is a certain element that is purely random: the only way to tell the people who are in happy relationships from the people who are not in happy relationships is that the former drew until they got an ace (or settled for a ten, I suppose) while the latter has not yet had the lucky hand. And so the only thing to do, and the only way to ensure eventual "success" (which, since it seems to be an arbitrary and not a skillful process, seems to me to be a misnomer) is to keep pulling cards. There's got to be one in here somewhere.

The paper I'm (supposed to be) re-reading right now, to discuss tomorrow, is about crossovers in mieosis. It is a mostly random process: as taught in introductory biology, crossover events occur without bias everywhere in the chromosome (except near the centromere). And it's a mostly essential process, both for mieosis to work right and for genetics to work right. Genes would not assort independently (one of Mendel's laws) were it not for crossing over and homologous recombination in meiosis: genes on the same chromosome would remain linked, and the shuffling that takes place in sexual reproduction would thus be greatly reduced, and the added diversity we gain from sexual reproduction nullified. But moreover, without crossing over events on the order of 1-7 times per chromosome (in humans), nondisjunction becomes a significant issue: chromosomes do not separate in meiosis, and terrible diseases (mostly, death) result.

The randomness (arbitraryness?) of the location of crossing over is another thing that is taught as fact, and seems important for good independent assortment: since no one place is guaranteed to recombine, alleles sort by a random flip of the coin, and therefore independent assortment is guaranteed. But, it turns out, recombination is much more likely in certain places than others, and different kinds of recombination are more or less likely in different places (a certain kind of recombination does not result in a crossing-over event). And it turns out that nature has rewired this randomness to create more randomness; removed the true random mechanism in favor of one that is skewed towards seeing phenotype: areas in genes, or promoters, or otherwise "useful" regions of the genome are much more likely to be the sites of these recombination events than other parts of the genome.

It's like the computer methods for playing a random song -- they are non-random, on the basis that in a truly random sample people see patterns, and do not believe in the randomness. In the world, so much seems totally random, which must really be skewed one way or another. But researchers couldn't find that out about recombination in meiosis until they did a full genome scan, and beginning students will still be just as well-served by treating meiotic recombination as a random event. You need a lot of data points to prove that something isn't random, when the randomness is so subtly changed. And here's the question: for any of the other arbitrary, absurd things in life (being published, bike tires going flat, trains being early or late, whether you make friends or find love, rainstorms in Palo Alto) is it really worth it to find the pattern, or is it just as useful to approach them as though they were totally random?


ayn said...

To respond pithily, while I don't necessarily believe things just happen randomly, "right place at the right time" seems to be an accurate description of how many situations have come to be.

Alex said...

A slightly different take:

Things that happen, happen. It is up to us to make the most of what we have.

This is not to say that said things are bad, just that they are. And the potential unfolded everyday is near infinite. Whether it is random or not seems almost irrelevant.

I jump around (almost arbitrarily :D ) on this topic. This is one of the many stances I have taken, and where I seem to be right now.