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The gods laugh at your plans: Chekhov, Jaspers, and life-changing moments

The most momentous and significant events in our lives are the ones we do not see coming. Life is defined by the unforeseen.
(Credit: Pixabay)
Key Takeaways
  • The most transformative moments in life are those that we do not see coming.

  • Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" and Karl Jaspers' "boundary situations" both explore the vulnerability and impotence of so much of life.

  • We all want to plan and see order in the world, but death, struggle, guilt, and chance will come crashing down to ruin it all. You cannot plan for those.

You’re in the shower one day, and you feel a lump that wasn’t there before. You’re having lunch when your phone rings with an unknown number: there’s been a crash. You come home and your husband is holding a suitcase. “I’m leaving,” he says.

Life is inevitably punctuated by sudden changes. At one moment, we might have everything laid out before us, and then an invisible wall stops us in our tracks. It might be an illness, a bereavement, an accident or some bad news, but life has a habit of mocking those who make plans. We can have our eyes on some distant shore, some faraway horizon, only to find everything come crashing down by the most unseen of events. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men. Gang aft agley” (often go wrong).

A calm sea with clouds overhead

In Anton Chekhov’s remarkable play, The Seagull, we meet a cast of characters who are all, in some way, in love with something. The young, idealistic artist Konstantin is in love with the idea of pure art. Arkadin, his mother, is in love with her fans and her celebrity. Konstantin’s girlfriend, Nina, is in love with becoming rich and famous. Everyone in the play has some kind of ambition and plan, or they live in regret over the life they chose. They rail against how misguided or mistaken their life has been, while longing for something else.

They are each like a seagull, flying over the sea or a great lake, and aiming purposefully for the shore. The view up there is wonderful. But the longer the seagull flies, the more oblivious they are to how they tire or weaken. They’re so fixated on some distant horizon that they’re at the mercy to life’s sudden changes. They’re blinkered and distracted, and the gods love nothing more than the hopeful hubris of mankind.

At one point in the play, Chekov has the character Trigorin recount a short story about a gull flying over a lake who’s, “happy and free.” But in the next moment, “a man sees her who happens to come that way, and he destroys her out of idleness.” The seagull is killed, its flight and plans annihilated, in one instant of random thoughtlessness.

Boundary Situations

While so much of our lives are spent in planning and preparation, the most transformative and significant moments are those which come at us out of the blue. These are what the psychiatrist Karl Jaspers called “boundary situations” — the ones we cannot initiate, plan, or avoid. We can only “encounter” them. These are not the mundane, everyday parts of our life — what Jaspers calls “situation being” — but rather they are things which thunder down to shake the foundations of our being. They change who we are. Although these “boundary situations” (sometimes called “limit situations”) change a bit in Jaspers’ works, he broadly sorted them into four categories:

  • Death: Death is the source of all our fear. We fear our loved ones dying, and we fear the moment and fact of our own death. When we know grief and despair, or when we reflect on mortality, we are transformed. We always know about death, but when it’s a boundary situation, it comes crashing into our lives like some grim scythe; an unforeseen curtain call. The awareness and subjective encounter with death transforms us.
  • Struggle: Life is a struggle. We work for food, compete for resources, and vie with each other for power, prestige, and status in almost every context there is. As such, there are moments when we are inevitably overcome and defeated, but also when we are victorious and champion. The final outcomes of struggle are often sudden and great, and they make us who we are.
  • Guilt: Hopefully, there comes a moment for each of us when we finally accept responsibility for things. For many, it comes with adulthood, but for others it comes much later still. It’s the awareness that our actions impact all around us, and our decisions echo into the world. It’s seeing the damage or tears we’ve caused. It’s to recognize that, however small or big, we’ve hurt and upset someone. It’s a profound pull of the heart that changes how we live, and it often comes on unexpectedly.
  • Chance: No matter how neat and ordered we might want our world to be, there will always be a messy, chaotic, and unpredictable exception. We can hope for the best, and make the plans we want, but we can never take a steering handle on the facts that will affect our existence. According to Jaspers, we each prefer, “assembling functional and explanatory structures … whose central axis lies in sufficient reason” and yet, “despite this, it is not possible for man to control and explain everything. In fact, day by day he faces events that he cannot call anything else other than coincidences or hazards.” We want order, and regularity. What we get is the mercurial and capricious throes of chance.

The best laid plans

What Chekhov’s Seagull and Jaspers’ “boundary situations” get right is that we are each much more vulnerable than we might want to allow. A wedding, three years and a fortune to plan, is ruined by a stomach bug. An hour-long journey home for Christmas winds up getting you stuck in the traffic of a freak snowstorm. A lifetime achievement is overshadowed by a national disaster.

Our lives are defined by the unforeseen. We have our dreams, hopes and are flying to some faraway shore. Yet life doesn’t care. Around every corner, at every flap of our wings, everything can change.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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