In an arresting scene in the movie No Country for Old Men, the sociopathic killer Anton Chigurh asks a gas station attendant: what’s the most you’ve ever lost in a coin toss? Chigurh poses the question after an eerie and menacing exchange that begins when the attendant, having observed that Chigurh is coming from Dallas, asks if there’s been any rain up his way. Chigurh is on the hunt for someone who has run off with a few million dollars of drug money, but he is a lawless rogue rather than an officer of the law, and he chafes at the impertinence of a man who seems to want to know his business.
What business is it of yours where I’m from…Friendo? he asks. The attendant apologetically explains that he meant nothing by it, but Chigurh is having none of it. After their eerie and menacing exchange, Chigurh flips a coin. Call it, he says. The bewildered attendant asks what he’s calling it for, since he didn’t put nothin’ up. Chigurh tells him you’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it, and then informs him that the date of the coin is 1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.
The attendant relents, calls heads, and guesses right. Chigurh congratulates him and gives him the quarter. As the attendant is about to put the quarter in his pocket, Chigurh stops him: Don’t put it in your pocket, sir. Don’t put it in your pocket. It’s your lucky quarter. The attendant asks Chigurh where to put it, and Chigurh says: Anywhere but in your pocket. Where it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. He pauses, then adds: Which it is. He leaves the store, and the audience is left to make up its own mind about what would have happened if the attendant had guessed wrong.
In the words of a bounty hunter hired to track down Chigurh and the money, Chigurh is a peculiar man. You might even say he has principles, principles that transcend money or drugs. Indeed, Chigurh gives the impression of a man who abides by a set of principles, however perverse they may be. But if there is a cryptic philosophy that motivates the coin toss, it is elusive (though the movie, and the novel on which it is based, offer clues). If I were to hazard a guess about the kind of principle Chirgurh lives by, it is that fate is inescapable. That does not mean fate is preordained. Fate is like the crest of an arc you have been climbing your entire life. Once on the arc, there’s no turning back. You can’t jump from one arc to another. You must ride the arc you are on. But even at the crest, you don’t necessarily know how it will end. Not because you don’t have access to a blueprint that lays out your path in life before it begins, as if God has made a plan for you and your job is simply to ride it out, but because your life has never been a blueprint (there’s no God’s plan). Your life has been a series of decision points which you have made in response to various contingencies. The interplay between judgment and contingency creates the raw material from which you construct the arc of your life.
Fate is dynamic and path-dependent. Who you have been, and what you have done, influence who you are now, and what you are about to do. A coin toss suggests that fate is a matter of chance, yet there would be no coin toss for a gas station attendant who knows enough to mind his own business. But that is not the man behind the counter. He is an affable man who indulges his curiosity about a customer, and thus inadvertently sticks his nose in the business of a sociopathic killer.
But maybe luck is on his side. Chigurh gives him an opportunity to find out. It is, in a way, an opportunity to show his mettle. To face up to his predicament. And ultimately, that is what he does. Alright, heads then, he says with a tone of growing impatience. The coin comes up heads. Chigurh is impressed.
Well done, he says.
The man has taken control of his fate.
When I was younger, I often sought counsel from older folk about love and marriage, specifically about how you find, or how you know, when you’ve met the person you want to spend your life with. I was once advised when you know, you know. This was rather unsatisfying, more like a fortune-cookie apothegm from a wizened street oracle than real advice derived from the tangible world of hard-won experience.
The woman who gave me this piece of advice was in her early forties. I met her at a bar in Manhattan’s Union Square as she was enjoying a low-key bachelorette get-together with other quadragenarian girlfriends. I wanted to know how she could tell she had met ‘the one’, so I asked her what made it click for her and her new beau. She said: when you know, you know. I’m not sure how convinced I was that her commitment was purely out of conviction, untainted by any anxiety about her biological clock, but I took her answer to heart and remember it to this day. It was a variation on the quip of the judge who said about pornography that you know it when you see it. The human mind is often content to let its judgment reside in vague intuition rather than ratiocination.
But a decade and a half later, as I get close to forty, with a fiancé and infant daughter at the center of my life, I am inclined to assess that woman’s remark in the light of Chigurh’s ostensible philosophy of fate. Before I met my partner Kara, I lived many years as a bachelor. I was engaged once, and had a few girlfriends, but the years I spent in relationships collectively amounted to ten or twenty percent of my life. This was not necessarily a conscious choice. As a boy in puberty, and as a young Romeo in search of love, I often pined for romantic intimacy, and spent a lot of time dreaming about the prospect of a woman who was ‘out there’ in the world, and whose path was destined to converge with mine.
Like many men and women who grow pessimistic about love, I had my doubts. There were times when I thought love was not in the cards for me. I would suffer through spells of desolation. I would curse the fates. Still, I hoped. I obsessed. I yearned. I was so wedded to hope that I chafed when hearing the advice it’ll happen when you least expect it, as if I could ever not be distracted by romantic aspirations.
But there did, in fact, come a time in my life when I least expected love to come my way, and it was then that Kara came into my life. I have been with her for two and a half years, and we have an infant daughter. We’ve had our ups and downs like other couples, but she is the only woman about whom I have ever been able to say: this is the woman who was ‘out there’ all these years.
Does that mean she is ‘the one’?
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