Accidents happen when things or people collide. If accidents didn’t happen, some of us wouldn’t be here (on this planet), and almost all of us wouldn’t be here (in this situation, relationship or place). Though I liked the idea of entering the world as a little bombshell, completely unexpected, I actually wasn’t an accident. When my parents got married and bought a cat, their parents complained that this four-legged creature was no replacement grandchild, so they dutifully supplied them with me. My grandmothers began knitting as soon as the pregnancy was announced, so an entire army of immaculate tiny clothes preceded me.
But despite this cushioned beginning, my young parents just weren’t ready for me, and I grew up a sensitive, accident-prone child, susceptible to viruses, collisions with sharp objects and overwhelming impressions. My feeling that I was always on the precipice of disaster, made me retreat into a world of my own making. It wasn’t all bad, though, the surprising people and situations I encountered daily, helped me become creative, empathetic and always ready to laugh. Interestingly, a friend who was almost aborted, because he was initially deemed superfluous, grew up so much more stable and resilient. I’m in awe of his expert handling of risk – he works hard, has antennae for good opportunities, and a knack for minimising misfortune. Both optimistic and pragmatic, this child who almost didn’t make it into the world, sees it as a place brimming with possibility.
Life’s randomness can be unfair, but it is also beautifully invigorating. At their best, accidents can save us from a sleepwalking through a lifestyle that no longer serves us. When I asked my friends about accidents that had transformed their lives, they overwhelmingly spoke about encounters with new people. Polly* had been working part-time in a cafe to fund her career as a musician, when a customer told her that she would get a better wage in another nearby cafe. Following this stranger’s advice, Polly changed jobs, and soon realised that she and the owner, Luke were attracted to one another, despite her engagement to another man, Adam. This inconvenient attraction was the catalyst for making her realise not only, the gaping holes in her relationship with Adam, but that she no longer needed to remain in a city that she hated, to pursue a now out-of-date dream of becoming a musician. Fully awake to her revelation, Polly broke off her engagement with Adam, gave up her teenage vocation, and moved back to the countryside, where she resumed her old job in an antique shop, and now talks about opening up her own vintage tea-house. Some months later, Polly wonders whether without these two encounters- first with the stranger who suggested she change jobs, and then with Luke- she might have married the wrong man and remained in the wrong city. While she’s still unsure of the future, Polly has more confidence in the present, and maintains that you grow by being open and trying things out.
Another friend, Pedro once saw a beautiful girl on his commuter train, but was too shy to approach her. Taking the train everyday, he expected she would be there at some point, and kept rehearsing what he would say in case she showed up. Some months later, when the girl finally made an appearance in his carriage, he mustered up the courage to talk to her. He later learned that the girl almost never took that train, and had only done so on that occasion because she had taken a day off work. Had this been a Hollywood rom-com, Pedro’s chance meeting with the girl would have culminated in a relationship that fulfilled his initial infatuation. In real life however, the girl wasn’t interested in him romantically, but introduced him to a friend, who introduced him to a friend, whose friend, Roberta, (the fourth in the chain), would become his girlfriend for eleven years. Roberta, a highly motivated graphic designer, brought a much-needed sense of stability into his life, which in turn, gave him the determination he previously lacked. Pedro had worked several jobs, but failed to make any headway in any because he felt adrift. When Roberta began to take him seriously, Pedro began to take himself, and his interest in literature and languages seriously. He became a a translator, got a Masters in literature, and then eventually moved from Brazil to the United States to start a PhD. Although they are no longer together, Pedro describes his relationship with Roberta as the defining feature of his adult life, and marvels that he would never have met her, had he not taken a chance with a stranger on a train.
Commuter trains, with their sliding doors, subterranean trajectories and hordes of passengers are picture-perfect locations for prophetic encounters (Just think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or the films Sliding Doors and Brief Encounter). Hearing Pedro’s story reminded me of my own frenzied train meeting a few months ago. Suffering from flu, balancing four deadlines and realising that I had no time to apply for what I thought was a unique job, I was sitting on the tube feeling helpless, and the tears just streamed down. Two people approached me- first an older lady, who told me that sickness and death were the only true disasters, and that I was too young to suffer so, and second, a man with brilliant green eyes, a Northern Irish accent, and an odd smell, who tried to comfort me, and then just before my stop, get my number, because I seemed like an interesting person. Part of me wanted to, because he seemed kind and sort of attractive, but in my pitiful state, I also worried that he was an opportunist with a damsel-in-distress fetish. I was also bothered by the smell. So, I thanked him sincerely for his kindness, and got off the train. When I got home, I wondered for a while if I’d done the right thing- but let it go, because with accidental train meetings, only certain Pedros in this world get a second chance! However, my next chance meeting was strangely wonderful, but that’s another story…
* Names and places in this article have been changed for privacy reasons, but the essence of the stories are true. Thanks to my anonymous sources!