My aunt's girlfriend asked me recently, "I've heard that everybody has one person who changes their life. Who do you think that person is for you?" Because I'd been drinking, I launched into a nihilist diatribe about unpredictability. I don't remember it, but this is my attempt to unravel what I think I said.
People want a narrative in their life. Everybody wants a story, because stories that begin and end can have a point, and with enough points, we can build some meaning, and maybe inject a purpose into life. Selecting the one moment that changed your life, or the person that set you on the right or wrong track, is creating a story by selecting a memorable and interesting starting point. For instance, "My aunt's girlfriend asked me recently..." is a start that relates meaningfully to the point I'm going to make from other points I've picked up throughout my life. That precise moment might be thought of as the turning point that set my life on the path to writing this essay. That may seem an arbitrary end point, but let's say this is the essay that finally catches the eye of the public and publishers and rockets me to the fame I so richly deserve. Then that starting point is a life changer, and my aunt's girlfriend would probably sit in the top ten people that changed my life.
Except that just like the last paragraph is an arbitrary end point for a story that may unfold into infinite universes, so is the starting point for the narrative. Running backwards, I was asked that exact question at that moment because the conversation was going in that what's-it-all-about-anyway direction, I had been drinking, but not enough to have passed out, and the only reason I wasn't passed out was because my flight had been delayed because some nut job had a bunch of wires and batteries in his bags at the airport and had starting talking back to the police who probably said something nasty to him. So it could have started with a basket case and a police officer. Also, there was a cheaper flight at another airport, but it's faster to take a cab to the airport I ended up using, and I generally hate lugging things around the subway. So, laziness played a big role. This can go back indefinitely, and any starting point would be exactly as relevant as the one I chose. I haven't even started going into the vast, multi-decade story lines that set me up to be the kind of person that would have a conversation like that, and I don't even know the even multier-decade story lines that put my aunt's girlfriend in the right state of mind for that question on that afternoon.
If all goes well, my future profession of dilettante novelist is among the guiltiest of those involved in encouraging people to believe in stories. I don't think it's bad; telling stories of the past and envisioning the future1 are basic requirements for being human. The mind is a big machine for applying transmittable packaging to the madness around us. We need stories, from Lolita to "I bought a bagel", to make transmission possible, and without them, we're pretty much boned. The danger is reification: making the model to represent the world or a chunk of our past, then believing the model is somehow a real thing. It's not. There is no one person or event that completely changed my life. There are a few that stick out in memory, but that's not because they were The Moments, it's because they just made the best stories.
My current career is noticeably an accident, as was almost every prior career. In fact, the only two potentially lucrative talents that I have consciously pursued for so long that the desire precedes my episodic memory are pool and writing. In three decades, I have made about one hundred dollars from writing, which just about covers the net losses from my attempts to monetize billiards. After spending five sixths of my life studying the arts, I became a programmer. For every person that actually became what they expected to become, there's another person who was late for a job interview, missed the train, hurried across the street and got hit by a bus. Whatever ironies come from all this, the concept of irony is what we apply to our lives to keep from going mad, and the narrative that makes the irony noble, tragic, or funny is what we do after the fact so we can tell the story without needing all the details we can't remember.
Every one of those details is as vital to our current state of being as the ones we remember. Staying up a little too late one night in 1986 has had as much effect on me as getting into a car accident in 1998, and probably more. The changes to my mind and body from that late night have had twenty-three years to reverberate through my life, and I'm sure many of the thoughts I have today that change my life have evolved from those sugar-fueled and sleep-deprived thoughts I had as a six year-old. If my parents had had sex thirty seconds later or sooner than they did, had one of the other millions of sperm hit home before the one that made me did the job, my whole life would have been vastly different.
On the other hand, I once forgot how to read. Not completely, I just did so many drugs and spent so many nights watching Red Dwarf reruns and playing video games that I hadn't picked up a book or written anything more complicated than my signature for eight months. At the end of that, it took me about ten minutes to read one page of a paperback and I had to mouth the words as I read. After getting back up to speed, it helped to think of the whole period as a descent into suffering that would eventually make me stronger, and I always thought of Ged in the Earthsea trilogy, who flies through his studies, gets arrogant, opens a door to the land of the dead, gets horribly mauled, and has to relearn everything much more slowly. My story had a cause and resolution too, and no, I didn't open gateways to other universes, but it helped my ego and recovery to compare myself to an epic hero.
The writers who give us the stories are taking metaphor from life, and our relation to them is our experience with the events in the real world. The story helps us understand our own journeys, but our journey is not an explicable story with a point; its a maddening, meaningless mess of circumstance about which we tell stories.
I don't believe things have a reason. A reason is a map from an arbitrary cause to an arbitrary end. Everything having a reason is the same as nothing having a reason; the only difference is we are slave to the reason in the former, and we forge the reason in the latter. It doesn't make a difference what the situation actually is, but I would prefer to think I defined my reasons, and they exist in me and everyone I can convince to believe me.
1 Usually equal confabulations.