One meaning of the word contingency is being unable to change what we have become; the inability to choose differently. It means being “next to” something and being unable to move away. Life keeps giving us – over and over again – the chance to re-examine our inner sense of contingency, and change it if we wish. Looked at another way, life always is challenging us to be wiser choosers.
The other day I watched the movie Heat because I admire Al Pacino and Robert de Niro as actors. It’s the story of an arch-cop, played by Pacino, versus an arch-criminal, played by de Niro. In one scene early in the movie, Pacino pulls de Niro over on an LA freeway and instead of arresting him, asks him to have a cup of coffee.
In the coffee shop, they size each other up and in doing so reveal the theme of the movie. Pacino says all he knows how to do is be a cop, and de Niro says all he knows how to do is be a criminal. The rest of the movie plays out this theme – each character being unable to change despite pressure from Pacino’s wife and de Niro’s new-found girlfriend – to its inevitable conclusion: the cop kills the bad guy.
Being unable to change what one has become is one meaning of the word contingency. More broadly, it means the inability to choose differently; to be unable to act on broader choices that are available. It means being “next to” something and being unable to move away.
In the movie, de Niro had a chance to get away clean. He had millions from a bank robbery. He had the girl, he had a chartered plane waiting just a few minutes away to take him out of the country, and the cops – particularly Pacino, didn’t know where he was. He was almost able to flee to safety, but his life experiences – his very core nature – got the best of him, and he knowingly walked into a trap to exact revenge on someone who had framed him earlier in the movie.
He had everything good to look forward to. Why did he turn his back on it all? There was a clear point of choice for him, and once he had made it, we knew he was going to go down.
Choices in life
It is often easier to look at the lives of others who are clearly not us to see how life always offers up choices that can either lead us to a new kind of life or condemn us to repeat the one we’re used to. It is our contingency that, more often than not, causes us to choose the latter and not the former.
We each have a picture in our minds of who we are. The picture comes from all the experiences we’ve had in our lives. When we were children our parents (or parent or whomever) told us who we were, our surroundings told us who we were, our friends and peers told us who we were.
“I’m someone’s son.”
“I’m someone who has a sister and two brothers.”
“I’m someone who lives in a farm house.”
“I don’t get picked early for a baseball game during recess.”
“I’m somebody that struggled with math one year because I was out sick for a week and never could catch up. Now I hate it.”
Whatever our experiences were as children, we form value judgements about ourselves based on them, that tend to last the rest of our lives. We become contingent with them. During our adulthood we very often continue to be the person we found ourselves to be as children.
Of course, as young adults we get our first job or go off to college and thus extend our inner definition of who we are, or sometimes re-define ourselves completely. If we’re really good at something, for example, we can come to see ourselves as a completely different person. The same is true of any major trauma (or drama) at any point in our lives. But the tendency to stick with a consistent picture of ourselves is nonetheless very strong.
But there is a nagging question here. We become arch-cops or arch-criminals. We become arch-Bobs or arch-Nanettes. But do we have to be? For example, watching the movie I was struck, as I’m sure the writer and director intended be to be, with how alike de Niro’s and Pacino’s characters were. it was not hard to imagine that with different live experiences, especially early ones, the arch-cop could have instead become the arch-criminal and vice versa.
What, perhaps small, differences in experience create a Republican versus a Democrat or Independent? A good father or mother versus an inattentive or uncaring one? A person scrupulous in his or her dealings with others versus a person who cuts corners at every chance to get ahead? A person with a lot of money versus one with very little?
Well, you might say, these things often depend on surroundings, especially economic ones. Not much more than a generation ago people talked about a person’s “lot in life.” But surely one’s ability to make money, say, depends on the belief that one [I]can[/I] make money: either a lot of it or only a little. And regardless of experience or circumstances, there have always been those who transcended those things to become successful in their chosen endeavor. But let’s leave the financial area and get back to why each one of us seems to be an “arch-me.”
It’s not hard to imagine any number of scenarios where life seems to be overwhelmingly contingent in our sense here, and little if any choice seems available. The young inner-city male, a mother with three young children to raise alone, a retired couple on a seemingly fixed income, a hash cook. But little choice is never [i]no[/i] choice. Inner-city men can and do get good jobs. Single moms can and do raise fine children. Circumstance does not rule lives as much as we think it does. Struggle against contingency is not the same as lack of choice.
So let’s look at the other extreme. Let’s imagine a person free of such contingencies. No financial worries. Self-confident to the degree they know they will be successful at whatever they set for themselves, but unafraid to fail if that should occur. What else? Well, not afraid of anything. A person who trusts their intuition and their world. An arch-explorer or an arch-experiencer. An arch-experimenter. A person not bothered by failure or set-back, at least not for long. The word [i]fearless[/i] might sum up this person.
There are times we are all fearless, even if just for a few moments. But then . . . We chose not to be, often by remembering a fear we have.
“It’s not worth it.”
“I’d never be able to.”
On and on. Which brings us to the sociology of contingency. Relationships.
Misery loves company and other role models
We need other people in our lives – we need to know them or read about them or see them in movies – to compare their sense of contingency with our own. How many times do we see the hero or heroine break free of their own sense of limitations, which we admire and call a triumph, or see them trapped in their own lives like de Niro’s character, which we call tragedy?
We meet other people who feel contingent in the same ways we do and we’re either comfortable being around them or sometimes they’re a mirror for us and we see in them something in ourselves we don’t like. Or we meet people whose sense of contingency is subtly or radically different than our own. This can be alarming or exciting for us, or both, alternately or simultaneously. How are we to react? Our values, which express among other things our inner sense of contingency, can sometimes give us the answer. The arch-cop can’t condone what the arch-criminal is about to do or has already done. But when our values don’t clearly cover the situation at hand, we are at somewhat of a loss.
The natural thing to do in this case is to find a third party who can be of assistance. Friends, spiritual leaders, parents, even characters in a novel or a movie can advise us.
“Should I quit my job and look for a better one?”
“Should I move to that place I’ve always wanted to live?”
“Should I let myself be vulnerable and get involved with that person?”
What do you think? We canvas, so to speak, these others as we examine our own fears, desires, values, sense of purpose and sense of ability.
We weigh safety, familiarity and comfort against risk, exploration, change and fears of all kinds. We may experiment or delay for a time, toying with our own sense of contingency.
“It might not be so bad.”
“I might like it/him/her.”
“Maybe I could do it.”
“This is new, and my life’s not exactly great right now.”
Then there’s the flip side.
“I’m not good at it.”
“I wouldn’t try hard enough.”
“I love him/her, but I’m not [i]supposed[/i] to.”
“I wouldn’t make it. I don’t need the grief.”
“That’s okay for him/her/them, but it’s not for me.”
“The whole thing is too [i]weird[/i]!”
“None of my other friends would do that, so I’m not going to jeopardize my standing with them. No thanks.”
Thus we choose.
If we stand back and examine this process, we see that it has one primary goal. Life keeps giving us – over and over again – the chance to re-examine our inner sense of contingency, and change it if we wish. Looked at another way, life always is challenging us to be wiser choosers. And why wouldn’t we want to wiser choosers?
The answer to this surprising question is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that our choices almost always have to agree with our sense of who we are. that is, with our inner sense of contingency. There are times we throw caution to the wind and take a risk, but this does not happen most of the time. (Okay, you got me. We were all teenagers once.)
The complex answer has to do with our fear, peer pressure, lack of knowledge of those who have tried something similar before and what happened to them. Perhaps the condensed answer is this: What will happen to me?
We can turn off any such exploration of life in any number of ways. We can accept our “lot,” we can accept that we are always going to be who we perceive ourselves to be right now. We can become complacent, we can settle for “enough,” or we can figure we’re just too old to try something new or be something new. We can give up on ourselves.
But there comes a day for everyone – sometimes many days – when we think,
“I wonder what would have happened if I’d had the courage to …”
“Sometimes I really wish I’d have …”
“It might not have been so bad if I only would have …”
Being an arch-explorer, an arch-experiencer, an arch-truster, is something most of us are not. But we could be.
The (almost) final contingency
Dylan Thomas summed it up pretty well:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
But rage, rage, against the dying of the light!
Next time we’ll look at inventing new, desirable contingencies. We’ll also look at the question of going into that “good night” at all. Hmm…