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How Randomness Rules Our Lives

--by Leonard Mlodinow (Jan 02, 2012)


I remember, as a teenager, watching the yellow flame of the Sabbath candles dancing randomly above the white paraffin cylinders that fueled them. I was too young to think candlelight romantic, but still I found it magical-because of the flickering images created by the fire. They shifted and morphed, grew and waned, all without apparent cause or plan. Surely, I believed, there must be rhyme and reason underlying the flame, some pattern that scientists could predict and explain with their mathematical equations. 

"Life isn't like that," my father told me. "Sometimes things happen that cannot be foreseen." He told me of the time when, in Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp in which he was imprisoned and starving, he stole a loaf of bread from the bakery. The baker had the Gestapo gather everyone who might have committed the crime and line the suspects up. "Who stole the bread?" the baker asked. When no one answered, he told the guards to shoot the suspects one by one until either they were all dead or someone confessed. My father stepped forward to spare the others. He did not try to paint himself in a heroic light but told me that he did it because he expected to be shot either way. Instead of having him killed, though, the baker gave my father a plum job, as his assistant. "A chance event," my father said. "It had nothing to do with you, but had it happened differently, you would never have been born." It struck me then that I have Hitler to thank for my existence, for the Germans had killed my father's wife and two young children, erasing his prior life. And so were it not for the war, my father would never have emigrated to New York, never have met my mother, also a refugee, and never have produced me and my two brothers.   
 
My father rarely spoke of the war. I didn't realize it then, but years later it dawned on me that whenever he shared his ordeals, it was not so much because he wanted me to know of his experiences but rather because he wanted to impart a larger lesson about life. War is an extreme circumstance, but the role of chance in our lives is not predicated on extremes. The outline of our lives, like the candle's flame, is continuously coaxed in new directions by a variety of random events that, along with our responses to them, determine our fate. 
 
--Leonard Mlodinow, in The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives


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19 Previous Reflections:

 
On May 4, 2012 Lilián E Villagrán wrote:
 My husband and I used to talk about how our lives are molded by the decisions we make in a fleeting instant, so true. Life is filled with unexpected lessons, experiences, challenges. All we have to do is accept the unchangeable and flow with it. In case something can be changed, it is up to us to create our reality.

On Jan 7, 2012 Chika Onyekwere wrote:

I have never had time to think about the way my existence came about, and the reason I am where I am today. This story has really inspired me, at least to be careful in all I do, and also to allow God lead me through His divine pathway for me, so that all that should happen through me will be a reality.



On Jan 5, 2012 Dinesh Mehta wrote:

 Audio clip from this week's circle of sharing ...

 



On Jan 3, 2012 Rajima wrote:

 The book Yoga Vaasishtam is exactly about  this.! very well written by this author too!



On Jan 3, 2012 rosa ysabella wrote:

 

randomness ... it boils down to the wisdom of uncertainty... life is 10% what is happening in our lives and 90% is how we respond to what is happening to us...

the wisdom of uncertainty rule... is not much on the strength u have to withstand anything u can take, hold, or control within ur power... it goes beyond what u can take, hold, or control within ur power...

so we continue to bend, to stretch, to expand where life will take us... and true enough we have become larger than what we thought... life indeed is full of surprises...

just be ready to let life surprise u everyday... be surprises...:)



On Jan 3, 2012 John Pitts wrote:

Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) described herself as "a feather on the breath of God". Thus as we all are, never knowing where life will take us. We can never know the outcome of our actions, but when we act with love and compassion we invite the best that life has to offer, for ourselves and for each other.

John



On Jan 3, 2012 ML wrote:

I am reflecting on how no other species behaves like this. 



On Jan 3, 2012 Jagdish Dave wrote:

 Life offers many surprises-good, bad and ugly. It all depends on how we take it.

Jagdisgbhai



On Jan 3, 2012 Edit Lak wrote:

What a lovely story and a wonderful way of looking at a horrendous events in life’s history, and seeing a positive fruitful outcome from a near tragedy.  Mlodinovs father was a true leader of ‘will’ and a visionary of randomness..    Destiny... Does destiny have a ‘Will?’..   So how do you cultivate equanimity?   After reading, this passage and reflecting on my life and the occurring situations that have lead me to where I am now.. I would think ‘Our Own Truth’ Taking responsibility for the truth of our actions, and accepting the actions of others, leads us to the place of ‘optimism’ and from there we have a choice to ‘tame the beast inside’ to nurture and release the love , acceptance of self to the world and universe, or, to be blinded by ignorance..  To see these jigsaw pieces of our destiny unfold is equanimity. Is that composure calmness, stillness, tranquillity the key t  See full.

What a lovely story and a wonderful way of looking at a horrendous events in life’s history, and seeing a positive fruitful outcome from a near tragedy.  Mlodinovs father was a true leader of ‘will’ and a visionary of randomness..    Destiny... Does destiny have a ‘Will?’..  

So how do you cultivate equanimity?   After reading, this passage and reflecting on my life and the occurring situations that have lead me to where I am now.. I would think ‘Our Own Truth’

Taking responsibility for the truth of our actions, and accepting the actions of others, leads us to the place of ‘optimism’ and from there we have a choice to ‘tame the beast inside’ to nurture and release the love , acceptance of self to the world and universe, or, to be blinded by ignorance..  To see these jigsaw pieces of our destiny unfold is equanimity. Is that composure calmness, stillness, tranquillity the key to ‘Self Destiny’.... I’m thinking of this and say – Yes; Because just for me, the more stuff I learn, accept about me , the more comfortable I become with ‘me’  and as I remove my imaginary layers of ‘ whatever’ shields me.. I realise and come to the point of its all ‘okay’ everyone that has come into my life has had a vital role, once I see that and accept it, then I sigh a ‘ohhh’ I get it.. ....  And it’s true.. Every self pain, has an outcome, and Its how we nurture that pain that grows ‘Us’

Well,  I’ll forever be the self farmer, cause it takes much love and patience to have a field of healthy equanimity and randomness   :-)  But the crop, when it comes, will be all worth it!!!!!!!

In reflection and thought

Thanks

E

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On Jan 2, 2012 Rajendra wrote:

What appears to be random, has infact a lot of orderliness of the nature. Because we are attuned to think, believe that we can control all our actions, and its fruits , when something happens contarary or different  to our thinking, we label it as random or feel miserable, angry depending upon our reaction. But if we accept all events that unfold each moment as an ordely pattern of nature and we are just observing, knowing the unfolding moment without attching any of our emotions, then we will be at peace irrespective of whether we are in control of the act or otherwise. In fact we are in control of ourstae of "Knowing" only

 



On Jan 2, 2012 PK wrote:

 Most of my life, i have experienced serendipidy -- I prefer to call seeming randomness this way. i do plan many different things meticulously -- only to see them fall apart and something else magically come alive and take me in a random direction. it always worked out.in 1980, I had an accident in my laboratory while i was doing my ph.d. and that added 18 months to my graduation. It also meant, the opportunity to work with a double Noble Laureate was gone and after waiting for other opportunities for several months, I decided to accept a job in an Indian company and moved to a remote place in Assam. 20 minutes after I left for the train station, a telegram came from US offering me a position in Salt Lake City. The kind postman who also delivered the telegram, knew what telegram meant and put that in the mail. After 24 days, the telegram reaches me in Assam and I am in US for a post-doc position in a random place.Then again in 1982, I applied for 172 jobs and because of recession,  See full.

 Most of my life, i have experienced serendipidy -- I prefer to call seeming randomness this way. i do plan many different things meticulously -- only to see them fall apart and something else magically come alive and take me in a random direction. it always worked out.

in 1980, I had an accident in my laboratory while i was doing my ph.d. and that added 18 months to my graduation. It also meant, the opportunity to work with a double Noble Laureate was gone and after waiting for other opportunities for several months, I decided to accept a job in an Indian company and moved to a remote place in Assam. 20 minutes after I left for the train station, a telegram came from US offering me a position in Salt Lake City. The kind postman who also delivered the telegram, knew what telegram meant and put that in the mail. After 24 days, the telegram reaches me in Assam and I am in US for a post-doc position in a random place.

Then again in 1982, I applied for 172 jobs and because of recession, I could not get even one. I had conflicts with my professor and was ready to return to India. In a random party, i come across another person who recommended me to meet his colleague and before I knew, I had a job offer in my back yard that led me to change my India plans again and stay back.

Samething with Apple job, same thing with quitting that job and on and on...

I call that Randomness that rules our lives -- magic, Grace or God!

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On Dec 31, 2011 David Doane wrote:

The message is true.  We want certainties.   We like to pretend there are guarantees.  The fact is life is uncertainties.  We might as well accept that, for to fight it is to fight life.  You never know. 



On Dec 31, 2011 gayathri wrote:

 randomness.....maybe universe's spontaneity or fruits of karma; working your will......could be the power of intention and Action to break through the vicious cycle of karmic influences and to effect a positive change in the course of universe's spontaneous responses...:))in theory yes it all sounds good....in practicality...how do i find a balance between accepting randomness and working my will.....randomness as random and dismissive as it sounds.....i have come to realize that it is not so...it has had profound influences and cast indelible memories in the path of my existence.  how do i make use of this so-called random experiences that life is sooo masterful at throwing....i really and seriously wish to make use of these experiences...if negative...to make positive out of it and something that would help me to look at the experience more objectively....now here is where my will could come to help me hold on to my objectivitiy and push for positivity out of the negativit  See full.

 randomness.....maybe universe's spontaneity or fruits of karma; working your will......could be the power of intention and Action to break through the vicious cycle of karmic influences and to effect a positive change in the course of universe's spontaneous responses...:))in theory yes it all sounds good....in practicality...how do i find a balance between accepting randomness and working my will.....

randomness as random and dismissive as it sounds.....i have come to realize that it is not so...it has had profound influences and cast indelible memories in the path of my existence.  how do i make use of this so-called random experiences that life is sooo masterful at throwing....i really and seriously wish to make use of these experiences...if negative...to make positive out of it and something that would help me to look at the experience more objectively....

now here is where my will could come to help me hold on to my objectivitiy and push for positivity out of the negativity....but gosh is that difficult or what.......

Positively thoughtful New year to you all

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On Dec 30, 2011 ummed wrote:

 Thanks Susan for such beautiful thoughts, " trusting life which is much bigger than I am, is a better way than trying to impose my ideas on any situations" also " The more I let go of my attachment to any outcome, the more I enjoy the gifts as Life and Love unfolds around me, in ways far beyond my imagination. I plan my most obvious next steps right in front of me, but then practice being open to whatever happens. Enjoy the unfolding"

 



On Dec 30, 2011 susan schaller wrote:

Thank you for the reminder that trusting life which is so much bigger than I am is a better way to live than trying to impose my ideas on any situation. I planned to be a doctor, but a car hit me.  That accident led to another where I met Deaf people and fell in love with their beautiful visual culture and life, changing my entire life.  My daughter spent last year in France with our French "family" - a 5 generation friendship.  This close friendship of decades would never have happenend if Hitler hadn't taken over France.  The more I let go of my attachment to any outcome, the more I enjoy the gifts as Life and Love unfolds around me, in ways far beyond my imagination. I plan my most obvious next step right in front of me, but then practice being open to whatever happens.  Enjoy the unfolding.



On Dec 30, 2011 manyam wrote:

Wonderful passage that captures an essential force in our lives that we rarely speak about and acknowledge. This should not mean we become vagabond flames of the winds but create meaning in our lives despite those winds. We may not yet know the purpose of our lives but one thing we could be is be greatful for what we do have today and create well paved paths for those to come just like the father did in the article for the son to be born and raised in NY.



On Dec 30, 2011 Ricky wrote:

We may see it as randomness, but this is why all the greatest writers and orators, and elders of the ages state that while we may set out to live our lives with the best intentions and hopes for a favorable outcome, it is the constant buffeting, changing, challenging, poking, prodding, upheavals and so on and our responses to these that begins to lay out the life we do end up living.  Pema Chodron:  "To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest."  Personally, I love birds and watching their activities, and this visual never fails to remind me of what being thrown out of the nest looks like!  “The winds of grace are always blowing.  All we need to do is set our sails.”  Ramakrishna.  Go with it, and understand deeply that this existence is the infinite experiencing the finite.  It's not easy, it just is.   The reading seems like an especially appropriate posting fo  See full.

We may see it as randomness, but this is why all the greatest writers and orators, and elders of the ages state that while we may set out to live our lives with the best intentions and hopes for a favorable outcome, it is the constant buffeting, changing, challenging, poking, prodding, upheavals and so on and our responses to these that begins to lay out the life we do end up living.  Pema Chodron:  "To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest."  Personally, I love birds and watching their activities, and this visual never fails to remind me of what being thrown out of the nest looks like!  “The winds of grace are always blowing.  All we need to do is set our sails.”  Ramakrishna.  Go with it, and understand deeply that this existence is the infinite experiencing the finite.  It's not easy, it just is. 

 

The reading seems like an especially appropriate posting for this time of the year.  The story told is from a horrific time in the continuum of existence for the human race.  My own parents made decisions based on the outcome of that era, and immigrated to America for a better life for the family they wanted to start.  The memories of the war for both of them shaped how they think, what they say, how they view life, how they define themselves, and how they live.  My father died almost 30 years ago.  My mom has since stated many times that we would not have struggled so much had we stayed in Germany, to which I usually state I am thankful for every day I live here, for my upbringing, for the opportunities, for the experiences, even the most difficult, negative, and challenging ones, and I remind her that I am grateful that the decision was made to come here.  She is always surprised by my response. 

 

Thoughtful planning and reflection also goes hand in hand with the newness of the beginning of the next year.  Setting resolutions is big business for fitness centers, life coaches, sporting good stores, self help book sales, storage companies, health food stores, health magazines, and juicers, just to mention a few.  When we set resolutions, we are under the impression we either have an enormous capacity to change overnight, or since it is the new year, we are required to give something up, add something, change something because we are not enough as we are, implying we have a do over this next year.  How about looking at it this way.  The New Year isn’t a do-over:  it’s an opportunity to take your next step.  When you change a small habit, you teach yourself that you can change anything.  (paraphrased from “Whole Living”, February 2012, page 89)

 

I work with teens.  Students during the second decade of the 2000s are dealing with changes beyond what we could have imagined in our lives when we were growing up.  I believe my job has become to help them find some answers, to listen to their frustrations, to offer some hope in the face of changing schools in the middle of the school year or moving between one parent and another every other week, sexual verbal and emotional abuse by parent, guardian, or partner, lack of food, clothing and stability, illness caused by weakened immune systems, and even homelessness.  I remind them the only thing they can change is their outlook on the situation, and that clarity arrives with each mindful breath.  Being fully present and clear of thought can help guide each choice along the way.  And finally, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path.  Your own path you make with every step you take.  That’s why it’s your path.”  Joseph Campbell 

 

Praises and anticipation for 2012-the year of the shift.  

 

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On Dec 29, 2011 Ummed wrote:

 submission to bigger intelligence. Many chance occurences, have majorly changed direction of my life. Yes, receptiveness to accept and try new direction coming has also been my nature. Thanks any ways for sharing this wonderful piece and making me reflect.

Love



On Dec 29, 2011 Conrad wrote:

Thanks for the opportunity to respond. I had great parents  and that was lucky randomness. They modeledl well and I learned much from their modeling. They chose their behavior, but for me, much of it was random. Things I am most grateful for  come from a benign randomness. Most of  my thinking and behavior is rather unconscious. I am grateful for what I have and what I am. Paradoxically, since we are all connected to everyone and everything, my me-ness is rather inconsequential. The universe is one and we are all part of it. We come from it and we go back to it. I am grateful for it. Thank you for reading this. Warm and kind regards to you all.