In an arresting scene in the movie No Country for Old Men, the sociopathic killer Anton Chigurh asks a gas station attendant: what’s the most you’ve ever lost in a coin toss? Chigurh poses the question after an eerie and menacing exchange that begins when the attendant, having observed that Chigurh is coming from Dallas, asks if there’s been any rain up his way. Chigurh is on the hunt for someone who has run off with a few million dollars of drug money, but he is a lawless rogue rather than an officer of the law, and he chafes at the impertinence of a man who seems to want to know his business.
What business is it of yours where I’m from…Friendo? he asks. The attendant apologetically explains that he meant nothing by it, but Chigurh is having none of it. After their eerie and menacing exchange, Chigurh flips a coin. Call it, he says. The bewildered attendant asks what he’s calling it for, since he didn’t put nothin’ up. Chigurh tells him you’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it, and then informs him that the date of the coin is 1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.
The attendant relents, calls heads, and guesses right. Chigurh congratulates him and gives him the quarter. As the attendant is about to put the quarter in his pocket, Chigurh stops him: Don’t put it in your pocket, sir. Don’t put it in your pocket. It’s your lucky quarter. The attendant asks Chigurh where to put it, and Chigurh says: Anywhere but in your pocket. Where it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. He pauses, then adds: Which it is. He leaves the store, and the audience is left to make up its own mind about what would have happened if the attendant had guessed wrong.
In the words of a bounty hunter hired to track down Chigurh and the money, Chigurh is a peculiar man. You might even say he has principles, principles that transcend money or drugs. Indeed, Chigurh gives the impression of a man who abides by a set of principles, however perverse they may be. But if there is a cryptic philosophy that motivates the coin toss, it is elusive (though the movie, and the novel on which it is based, offer clues). If I were to hazard a guess about the kind of principle Chirgurh lives by, it is that fate is inescapable. That does not mean fate is preordained. Fate is like the crest of an arc you have been climbing your entire life. Once on the arc, there’s no turning back. You can’t jump from one arc to another. You must ride the arc you are on. But even at the crest, you don’t necessarily know how it will end. Not because you don’t have access to a blueprint that lays out your path in life before it begins, as if God has made a plan for you and your job is simply to ride it out, but because your life has never been a blueprint (there’s no God’s plan). Your life has been a series of decision points which you have made in response to various contingencies. The interplay between judgment and contingency creates the raw material from which you construct the arc of your life.
Fate is dynamic and path-dependent. Who you have been, and what you have done, influence who you are now, and what you are about to do. A coin toss suggests that fate is a matter of chance, yet there would be no coin toss for a gas station attendant who knows enough to mind his own business. But that is not the man behind the counter. He is an affable man who indulges his curiosity about a customer, and thus inadvertently sticks his nose in the business of a sociopathic killer.
But maybe luck is on his side. Chigurh gives him an opportunity to find out. It is, in a way, an opportunity to show his mettle. To face up to his predicament. And ultimately, that is what he does. Alright, heads then, he says with a tone of growing impatience. The coin comes up heads. Chigurh is impressed.
Well done, he says.
The man has taken control of his fate.
When I was younger, I often sought counsel from older folk about love and marriage, specifically about how you find, or how you know, when you’ve met the person you want to spend your life with. I was once advised when you know, you know. This was rather unsatisfying, more like a fortune-cookie apothegm from a wizened street oracle than real advice derived from the tangible world of hard-won experience.
The woman who gave me this piece of advice was in her early forties. I met her at a bar in Manhattan’s Union Square as she was enjoying a low-key bachelorette get-together with other quadragenarian girlfriends. I wanted to know how she could tell she had met ‘the one’, so I asked her what made it click for her and her new beau. She said: when you know, you know. I’m not sure how convinced I was that her commitment was purely out of conviction, untainted by any anxiety about her biological clock, but I took her answer to heart and remember it to this day. It was a variation on the quip of the judge who said about pornography that you know it when you see it. The human mind is often content to let its judgment reside in vague intuition rather than ratiocination.
But a decade and a half later, as I get close to forty, with a fiancé and infant daughter at the center of my life, I am inclined to assess that woman’s remark in the light of Chigurh’s ostensible philosophy of fate. Before I met my partner Kara, I lived many years as a bachelor. I was engaged once, and had a few girlfriends, but the years I spent in relationships collectively amounted to ten or twenty percent of my life. This was not necessarily a conscious choice. As a boy in puberty, and as a young Romeo in search of love, I often pined for romantic intimacy, and spent a lot of time dreaming about the prospect of a woman who was ‘out there’ in the world, and whose path was destined to converge with mine.
Like many men and women who grow pessimistic about love, I had my doubts. There were times when I thought love was not in the cards for me. I would suffer through spells of desolation. I would curse the fates. Still, I hoped. I obsessed. I yearned. I was so wedded to hope that I chafed when hearing the advice it’ll happen when you least expect it, as if I could ever not be distracted by romantic aspirations.
But there did, in fact, come a time in my life when I least expected love to come my way, and it was then that Kara came into my life. I have been with her for two and a half years, and we have an infant daughter. We’ve had our ups and downs like other couples, but she is the only woman about whom I have ever been able to say: this is the woman who was ‘out there’ all these years.
Does that mean she is ‘the one’?
By that I do not mean I have doubts about whether we are meant to be together till death do us part. Rather, I do not believe in this idea of ‘the one’ because there is always the possibility of a coin toss that looms. The lives of Kara and me are intertwined. We love each other. We have a daughter together. We plan to spend the rest of our lives together. But we have had moments when I’ve threatened to move out, or when she has been cast into a state of dismay about whether I would ever learn how to be ‘present’ in a relationship, or when disagreements about how to live and how raise a daughter have boiled over. In the weeks after our daughter was born, when sleep was a luxury and we were charged with the survival and care of a newborn, we had moments of friction when our faith in each other was stretched. One could say that we were not ready for all this. Love. Parenthood. Commitment. There was sometimes a strong chance it might not work out between us.
Some of our frictions stemmed from the baggage each of us brought to the relationship. Given her past relationships, she had difficulty trusting my motives. Given my own past relationships, I had difficulty trusting that she was acting in good faith. A host of other prejudices derived from experience had seeped into the marrow of our relationship and interfered with our ability to smoothly reconcile our differences and integrate our lives. This is a fundamental challenge familiar to anyone who has been in a relationship, though specific frictions are unique to each relationship. The point is that rarely, if ever, is a relationship immune to cracks that seep into its edifice of trust and understanding if one does not put in the work to maintain it. Relationships are inherently fragile.
One must not take a relationship for granted. The integrity of a relationship is like the performance of an investment portfolio. You can buy and hold, in which case the strategic allocation will go astray as market volatility skews the value of stocks and bonds away from their original allocation, at which point the allocation does not correspond to the proportions set by the initial assessment of one’s overall risk and return profile. If your aim is to optimize your portfolio so that it is in accord with your investment objectives and risk tolerance, you must monitor and rebalance. You must be alert to the inherent volatility of market forces and take active measures to maintain the ever-tenuous equilibrium of a portfolio allocation. Market volatility is not unlike a coin toss, but one can try to stack the odds in his favor, or at least be prepared to take action when the market turns.
Monitoring a portfolio is like monitoring a relationship. One must work to minimize the chances that destiny comes down to a coin toss. One does not want to be unprepared to overcome the challenges that circumstances inevitably present. Life can come down to a coin toss, or you can make luck the residue of design. You can neglect your relationship, or you can work on your relationship every day. Depending on your choice, any gulf between you and your significant other either widens or narrows when tragedies strike (e.g. a death in the family, a child is diagnosed with cancer, a partner is laid off from a job), or when the stress and grind of daily life threaten to dull the passions you felt when you first fell in love. The equilibrium of a loving relationship can come apart at the seams, or it can be stitched so tight it is impervious to the rip and tear of well-worn experience. It depends on how well you knit the fabric of your relationship, and how diligently you seek to mend fraying edges.
When the confused attendant says he hasn’t put anything up, Chirguh says yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it. It is not clear what exactly the attendant has been putting up his whole life. The audience is left to make up its own mind. But Chigurh has formed an impression of what caliber a man the attendant is, and presumably he has taken him for a chump, until that is, he calls heads and gets it right. Well done, Chigurh says, newly impressed with the man.
The attendant, you might say, got lucky. He did not see this encounter coming. In his defense, who is ever ready for an encounter with a sociopath? But like lovers confronted with a threat to their relationship, he does not turn away from the challenge. The outcome of his choice is more directly a matter of luck, but like lovers who choose to meet rather than retreat from a challenge, he accepts that he must make a choice. There is no grand plan for the universe. There is no inevitability. One must choose, and let the chips fall where they may.
I was recently in a conversation among friends who were thinking about the prospect of starting a family someday. One friend said I’m just not ready right now. He is in his early thirties. He has a good career. He loves to watch and play basketball. He’s an introvert who enjoys time to himself. He worries that family life will disrupt the life he has going for himself.
To which I reply, it will.
There is no escaping it. Starting a family is a watershed. It creates new responsibilities. It imposes new obligations. It forces a whole new set of compromises in your life.
But even knowing all that, there is no way to prepare for it. Sure, one can be more or less mature about it. One can be in better or worse financial straits. One can be more or less eager to start a family at a given point in his life. And it is true that some people are custom-made to be parents, whereas others are less so. But whether you are a family man or not, whether you are at a better time in your life or not, the ultimate realization that you have is: you are never ready.
You don’t know exactly when love is going to strike, and when it does, you are already wedded to your own way of doing things. Family brings a host of responsibilities that can shock the system of a long-lived bachelor who has known little but the leisure of answering only to oneself. He is not ready. But life is not a plan. It is not a blueprint that demarcates a clean threshold at which point one suddenly becomes ready to fall in love and start a family. It is, to borrow from the title of former president George W. Bush’s book, a series of decision points.
In life, you don’t follow a plan like an automaton. You strive to make good decisions. There was never any guarantee I would meet Kara. Any number of things that happened could have happened otherwise. I could have stayed in New York and never moved to Washington, D.C. I could have decided not to join the YMCA gym where I met her. Kara may never have signed up for boxing class at the YMCA if she did not work with a colleague who taught boxing class and convinced her to come to his class after she told him about a stranger who had groped her on the Metro. The list of contingencies goes on and on. In retrospect, it all seems like a plan. But it seems that way only through the lens of hindsight bias. Much of life is the result of choices you make in response to the contingencies of happenstance.
Two years after Kara and I met, after nine months of pregnancy, Kara started to feel severe and frequent contractions at 10pm at night. Though she was due in two weeks, nature had decided not to cooperate. There was no delaying it. We had to get to the hospital. We were there all night, and at 6:03am the next morning, my daughter was born. Having been without sleep the entire night, in a cold room with beeping machines and doctors dressed in blue gowns and face masks, I suddenly heard a newborn cry. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say or how I was supposed to react. I just knew I was not dreaming and my child was now here. It was time to meet my fate. The coin toss had come. I had to call it, even if I wasn’t ready. It wasn’t because Kara was ‘the one’, but because my fate had delivered her, and now a daughter, to me, and I had to embrace it, or run away.
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