“There is no plot; there is only luck and chance,” says Cormac Samuel O’Connor, the protagonist in Pete Hamill’s Forever, a 2002 novel of an Irish boy who lands in America in the early 1700s and is granted immortal life as long as he stays on the island of Manhattan. Eternal life! What so many have dreamed of! And Cormac lives it to the full, all the way to our time, as New York’s fortune unfolds around him.
With immortality on his side, he has lots of time to think about his life in process – and all he can come up with is, “There is no plot; there is only luck and chance.”
Is that really the best we can hope for?
In part, yes. Much of life really is sheer luck: where and when we are born; the parents who raise or ruin us; our natural endowments and the opportunities we do or do not have to realize their potential; whether or not we boarded The RMS Titanic, on April 10, 1912; whether we did or didn’t work in the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001.
But with all that, there is a plot, as the reader of Forever surely knows. Forever is nothing but the plot of Cormac’s life. It took someone else to tell it, however.
So too, there is a plot to our own lives, but it will take someone else to tell it. However much we keep a diary or write our memoirs, the final plot comes clear only to those who see us in perspective after we are gone: whoever gives our eulogy; the people who remember us, and then string together the story of what we meant to them beyond the chance and circumstance of fate and fortune.
I write this on erev Yom Kippur, the day before the holiest day in the Jewish year – a day that features the master image of another book, “The Book of Life.” The famous prayer for these High Holy Days (Un’taneh Tokef, by name), calls it also our “Book of Memories” — “memories,” however, of not just what, by chance, our lives became, but of how we managed the endowment of our days; and managing the endowment of our days is not like managing a daily calendar or a stock portfolio. It is the way we superimpose some moral compass upon the “luck and chance” that is our lot. As Un’taneh Tokef also says about our Book of Life, “our signature is on every page” – our moral signature, that is. We call that character.
Good books have plot but also character. When it comes to the Book of Our Own Life, we are not the final arbiter of the plot, but we are in charge of character. Regardless of the luck and chance that come our way, we get to choose the personal moral space that will define us. Philosopher Daniel Dennett calls it “the center of our narrative gravity.”
Standing on the threshold of a new Jewish year, we cannot predict or promise the outcome of our life’s plot. We can, however, decide the strength of moral character that we will demonstrate, as luck and chance and plot unfold.