June 14, 2013 6:57 pm

Will something turn up?

Most of the time we do well enough at adapting ourselves to whatever life throws at us

The Sage

Illustration depicting the question: 'Will something turn up?'©Laura Carlin

When people tell themselves that “something will turn up”, they often do so with the reassurance that “it always has done in the past”. A true enough observation but not, alas, a sufficiently examined one.

What exactly has come up in the past? Above all, a series of incredibly unlikely events. Consider how the existence of our particular universe is almost immeasurably improbable, the creation of each one of us even more so. Something had to turn up but we would be mad to think that we were bound to be part of it. We are all just winners in the cosmic lottery, men and women who drew the ticket of conception and made it to adulthood more or less intact.

What this illustrates is that if life is OK, it simply means that, so far, something has always turned up. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. But that shows nothing about what the future might bring, let alone that fate has things under control.

“Something will turn up”, therefore, means only that something will happen – but this could be anything from discovering the elixir of eternal life to dying in a freak flatpack-construction accident. Even more so than stocks and shares, the past performance of luck is no guarantee of future returns.

What’s more useful is to think not so much of what has turned up but how we have dealt with it. Most of the time we do well enough at adapting ourselves to whatever life throws at us, and it’s good to remind our anxious selves that we’ll probably cope with more or less whatever comes up next. Most people do not end up where they originally intended to be and yet, remarkably often, we find we’re all right with where we are.

That does provide a kind of reassurance, albeit very different from the complacent assumption that everything will turn out for the best in the long run. Pizzas don’t order themselves and life as a whole is even less obliging. Chance will play its part whatever we do, but it will dictate everything only if we let it.

. . .

The Shrink

There is a common idea that everything is governed by a benevolent power and the universe will provide goodies if only you are open to its munificence. The Findhorn Foundation, a spiritual community founded in northeast Scotland in 1962, says: “We can rest in unquestioned confidence that the universe provides, that we have and will receive what we really need.”

This is what I’d call the mystical version of the idea. There is also a non-mystical one: you want a change of career or to find someone to share your life with but you can’t be bothered to do anything about it and, therefore, succumb to procrastination and wishful thinking, assuming that something will turn up.

There are reasons to be wary of both of these approaches. The mystical view goes against all we know about the universe – and procrastination is usually to be avoided. But there is also a grain of truth: sometimes it’s helpful to stop trying to force a change and to start trusting that we’ll recognise the right thing when we see it.

Whether it’s wise to go for this laid-back approach depends on several variables. One is how urgent the change is. Another is how clear you are about what you’re looking for. It also matters whether the required thing is in plentiful supply: when new possibilities regularly arise, it may be reasonable to wait until the right one comes along and then pounce on it. But when something isn’t just going to fall in your lap, you’d better go after it.

The “wait and see” approach may be a dicey principle to adopt if, for example, you’re quite unsatisfied with your current career, have only a hazy idea about what you’d like instead and the jobs in that field are thin on the ground. You may be lucky, but you may wait for ever in frustration.

The alternative in those cases is not stressing about the issue, labouring under delusions of control. Just clarifying what you want and making sure you maximise your exposure to it may be a better bet than simply waiting.

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The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.

To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@ft.com

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