I was talking to articulate matter over the weekend, and she raised a question regarding an old personal philosophy I used to call contingency theory. She said the two words, and something happened between my ribs, something nonverbal and nearly painful. I remember contingency theory, but I have no idea what it is or where it came from. Articulate Matter sent me to “the dictionary,” a document produced around 1996 by my bestest friend Tink, a historical repository of the things we said and what we meant at the time.
Under contingency theory (and I paraphrase here, because I don’t have the dictionary with me) the definition is as follows: “everything matters. And I mean everything.”
Contingency theory was shared with me by one of the customers at the frame store I worked at when I was 16, and I took the idea and created a whole construct around it which (apparently and cryptically) can be wrapped up in the simple phrase “everything matters.”
A google search this week produced this line: Consistently unsystematic, contingency theory welcomes stray facts, complexity, intuitions, and feelings. And I sent this link to both Tink and Articulate Matter.
Unfortunately, neither definition feels right. I dreamed about it the other night – in the dream I was riding a wave towards a building and I was sure that, if I just did it right, I could arrive standing on the sidewalk in front of this building unscathed. I also knew that if I didn’t do it right, I’d be smashed into the glass façade. And somewhere, perched atop that wave, I remembered what contingency theory meant and I was pleased. Then I woke up and forgot.
Around the time my personal contingency theory was hatched, I was hopelessly and foolishly crushing on a lanky boy named Joel who worked at a local Kemp Mill Records. I bought Aimee Mann’s “I’m With Stupid” from him, and would travel out University Blvd on weekends to see Joel, who never asked me out. I certainly didn’t have the courage to ask him out – chubby, awkward thing that I was at the time.
Other dominant memories from that time involve wandering around Tink’s rain-soaked neighborhood at midnight with no shoes. We were convinced, in the way that teenagers are absolutely certain, that we were thinking new thoughts. We discovered that everything would be alright in the end, and that if it wasn’t alright, then it wasn’t the end. I had a theory about the dual nature of things, how on the surface, something didn’t matter at all, but pull back a layer and it mattered very much, but pull back another layer and it wasn’t necessary anymore, back and forth. Joel was a prime example. He didn’t matter, but he did, but he was kind of irrelevant. He just provided a destination for Tink and me, and that is what marked me: those drives up University Blvd, the first taste of autonomy fresh and bright in our mouths.
I think when it comes down to it, contingency theory – as it was used at the time – was just a way to mark that each of these small things that we bumped into changed the things that we would bump into next. My favorite game: if then therefore. We were born, that was the only “necessary.” Thereafter, it was all contingency – our choices dependent on a hundred other choices, some of which we controlled, some of which we did not. We could do nothing but bump along, doing the best we could, and taking fierce pleasure in the absurdity of it.
At least I think that’s what it meant at the time.
The funny thing (and I’ll probably post more on this later) the conclusions that Tink and I came to as teenagers keep getting more relevant a little over a decade later. I still think that finding fierce pleasure and unexpected joy in the absurdity of it is one of the few ways to confirm and celebrate the best parts of humanity. And why not celebrate what there is to celebrate? The rest of it is no picnic. It is enough to be grateful for the unexpected beauties that show up in all of our lives.