Signs that Aren’t

In Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tereza, a young wife and photo journalist, finds meaning in little things: a book, a park bench, the flight of birds, a glass of cognac. In her mind, finding meaning in these things gives direction and purpose to her jumbled existence. A major theme of the novel is the tension between what the characters believe is meant to be (Es muß sein) and what could be different (Es könnte auch anders sein). Kundera borrows this comparison from the last movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135, entitled “Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß” (The Difficult Decision).

I included the novel in my undergraduate theology courses but never identified with Tereza’s way of thinking. I didn’t want to be weak and light, stringing coincidences together like beads in an attempt to make sense of my existence. I wanted to be more like Tereza’s husband, Tomas, a surgeon and playboy who loved Beethoven and glided through life like a ripple without caring about anyone or anything until Soviet tanks rumbled through Prague during the invasion of August, 1968.

But, truthfully, I am a bit like Tereza. I can find coincidences anywhere and create meaning out of them. For instance, walking home from Safeway this week a strange thing happened. I carried two plastic bags in my hands and a canvas travel bag across my shoulder. First, one plastic bag ripped, forcing me to rearrange the contents on the sidewalk and knot the bag so I could continue walking. A block later the second bag broke. The same thing. Two blocks beyond that, the buckle on the strap of my travel bag snapped. I had to stop and reconfigure the bag MacGyver-style. Now, I understand when it rains it pours, but how can all three occur on the same walk at virtually the same time? It hasn’t happened before or since.

There are other examples. I knew my current job was meant to be while interviewing for it (Es muß sein), because the last four digits of my office phone and mobile were identical: 2344. What could be more telling than that? As if that weren’t enough, I live on the same street that I lived on when I first moved to California in 1980. And, no, it’s not the same house. Coincidence? I am even back in the business world, which is where I started out years ago with the California Society of CPAs, as if coming full circle. Of course, you might point out that what all these examples have in common is me, moi, but examine your own life for similar coincidences. I am willing to bet there is a bit of Tereza in all of us.

So where does this leave us? Somewhere between the extremes of (1) seeing signs all around us, speaking to us, jumping up and down to grab our attention, and (2) dismissing them as made up by people who either see what they want to see, or who are so deluded that they talk to crystals (see Meant to Be (or Not): That is the Question).

I believe signs exist but they need our free will, which determines when, where, and how they move from fantasy to reality. But that movement involves other people. Ever think a relationship, job, or situation was so perfect that it was meant to be only to have it come crashing down around you in flames? There may be signs, there may even be Es muß sein, but it doesn’t matter unless we and others make them real. As Cassius tells Brutus, the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves. Or, as Joe Rogan put it, bringing it down to street level, “Conquer your inner bitch, bitch.”

Kundera explains Tereza’s signs and coincidences in a way that makes the most sense not just for her but for us as well. She sees signs in everything, he says, not because she is delusional or lonely or lost, although she is all these, but because she is trying to find beauty in the gray, violent world around her. “Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.” Isn’t that what we are all trying to do?

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 (1826), “Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß” (The Difficult Decision). Performed by the Emerson String Quartet (2018).

Image credits: feature by Belinda Fewings; signs by Austin Chan; lost by Eileen Pan. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedorahere. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli.

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