The word chance is used in many different ways. You can take a chance or have a chance encounter. You can decide not to take chances or you can decide you have a chance. There is an element of luck to chance – whether that’s good luck or bad depends on your perspective. According to the dictionary, chance is fortuitous or accidental, a possibility. Chance is out of our control so all we can do is respond to it.

Every day our lives are touched by chance. We learn something new, depending on what we read or hear. Perhaps we run into an old friend by chance or get into a fender bender on our way to work. We’re forced to take a detour and discover a great bakery we never knew about. We win the lottery! Okay, the chances are slim for that.

Chance Operations

Chance is also something we can invite into our lives. Why would we do that? Because if we operate only according to our own will or the story of how things should be, we eliminate possibilities. John Cage, the musician and artist, invited chance into his life and work (See: Where the Heart Beats). He called it using chance operations and it can be as simple as rolling dice. Give your will a break occasionally and let chance make a decision. Cage is most known for his outrageous musical composition 4’33” – where the “composition” consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The song is created brand new each time from the ambient sounds in the room and the listening ears of the audience. It is composed completely by chance, within the structure of 4’33” of course.

This may sound silly at first hearing (no pun intended), but it is deadly serious. For this is the very definition of creation – something new comes into existence by bringing disparate elements together in a new way. Sometimes, the most inventive creations happen by accident, by chance. See: 15 Life-Changing Inventions that were Created by Mistake. In these cases, the creators set out to do one thing, became immersed in the process, and discovered something new along the way.

“Begin with an intention, and open it up to the unpredictable.” ~ John Cage, Where the Heart Beats

Cage believed that by using chance operations, he could destroy his narrative, his particular point of view. It’s not that his point of view was not worthy, just that there were a multiplicity of points of view he may not have considered. It was a way of freeing himself from his ego and his particular likes and dislikes. Chance is a way of letting things be as they are without imposing your own judgments on them.

“Most people don’t know that I use Chance as a discipline – they think I use it as a way of giving up making choices. But my choices consist in choosing what questions to ask.” ~ John Cage, Where the Heart Beats

Often the best things in life come from chance encounters. Your car breaks down on the highway and someone stops to help, who just turns out to be the love of your life. You take a wrong turn on a path and discover a beautiful vista. Chance is not always about being lucky. We can experience a tragedy by chance which changes the course of our life. It’s what we do with these happenings that makes all the difference.

I often describe photography as a chance encounter. It is not me that “makes” a picture. Instead, I’m open to what I find along the way. I have an encounter, and then I photograph that relationship. It’s just as much about what the subject offers to me as it is in how I choose to express it. The image at the top of this post is an example. I was walking along and saw this scene reflected on the side of a parked car. The light at that particular moment and the location of the car together created the image. I just happened upon it, an image waiting to be seen.

This is life (and art) in a nutshell – a dance with chance.

A Year of Chance

Each year it seems that we set out to make plans and goals for the coming year. This year will be different. And then we get down on ourselves if our goals aren’t fulfilled exactly as planned. Life gets in the way. I looked back at this past year and tried to identify some of the things that happened to me by chance, things that I could have never predicted at the beginning of the year. These few that I share here enriched my life immeasurably this year.

* I visited Tucson for the first time in my life this past February and then my daughter moved there in June. I was back to visit in November and will probably be there many times more.

* I happened upon the Feldenkrais movement method online and then found a wonderful practitioner right here in my area. I’ve now attended several of her classes.

* A friend told me early in the year about an online class on racism called Hard Conversations. I took the class and was amazed at what I learned. This inspired me to read as much as I could from black writers.

* I went to a choir class to support a friend. I’d never been in a choir before and can’t sing, but discovered I loved singing together with a group. I’ve become a regular participant.

* I bought my husband a cooking school class at a local winery. We had a great day there and my husband got talking to the owner. He now works at the winery.

* A friend was getting rid of some books. She messaged me pictures of six of them, wondering if I was interested in any. I picked three of them. One, The Way of Transition, turned out to be very timely and is now one of my favourite books ever.

* And finally, my favourite chance encounter. I learned from a tweet by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings that there was a free online class in Modern Poetry (ModPo) from her alma mater, University of Pennsylvania, starting soon. I joined in and it was life-changing.

Chance is a part of life whether we like it or not. It can enhance our life but we have to be on the lookout for it. We can also invite chance in. Whenever we feel our ego or rigid story is in charge, it’s time to ask yourself or others provocative questions, like “How else can I look at this?” or “What other choice could I make?”

Ways to Invite Chance In

    * When you walk, be open to what you discover. Take a different route. Walk at a different time of day. Let your body lead rather than your mind.

    * In photography, try intentional camera movement. Or, photograph what repulses you until you find the beauty. Notice accidental art.

    * Open a random book to a random page and see what it has to say to you. Or, go to the library and walk to a random shelf and pull a random book off the wall. Take it out and read it. Try a different news source.

    * In writing, try chance poetry (See: Austin Kleon’s newspaper blackout poems). Do morning pages, writing down everything in your mind no matter how it sounds. What do you discover?

    * Go on an artist date, especially to some place you haven’t been before. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to see an exhibit only to find another exhibit in the same place that I like even better.

    * Use chance to guide you in decisions – roll the dice, pull a tarot card, use the I Ching.

    * Keep a chance diary (see below).

Keep a Chance Diary

One of my goals for 2018 is to keep a daily chance diary. I want to track the small, daily chance events that come up. For I believe that this is not only a way to express gratitude, but to discover opportunities to create. It’s not all up to me. I need to cooperate with what the universe is showing me.

Here’s an example that happened as I was writing this post. This month I’ve been receiving daily email links to TED talks. The email has a short piece saying why you should watch this talk. The one I received today is called “How to find a wonderful idea” and it just happens to be all about this idea of chance and discovery. What are the odds of that? Watch it below and you’ll see what I mean. Besides that, it’ll give you your daily dose of wonder.


What happened to you this year by chance? Or, how about today?


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