Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Coffee shop wisdom

Now that we have a stroller in which to deposit Sonny while we eat, we've been sallying out regularly to the nearby cluster of coffee shops. All the establishments are a few minutes' easy stroll apart. They offer pretty much the same sort of food and drink and none is really a culinary discovery worth writing home about. Yet certain ones among them are popular, drawing a steady clientele from morning through till the wee hours of the morning. Others are gloomily quiet and are lucky to have a sprinkling of customers.

What makes one place a success and not another? We can't really put a finger on a solid explanation. One would have to say, after due deliberation, that the capriciousness of fate is in play. More people, perhaps, are in the habit of going to eatery A than to eatery B, but there might not ultimately be a good reason why.

Quite the wrong conclusion to draw from this thought, however, is that 'Life is reducible to a lottery' and allied sentiments. For pointing to fate usually works best as a backward-looking indicator. When it comes to predicting future conditions, the interjection of individual effort, initiative and ingenuity can modify, if not utterly reverse, the initial verdict of chance.

To stick with our coffee shops: In a relatively short time, we'll probably have to start plumping Sonny down into a high chair so he can half-eat and half-fling his food. Now, the provision of high chairs is critically neglected amongst our cluster of coffee shops. If, tomorrow, one of the shops were to go out and buy a few brightly-coloured chairs, and have that fact advertised, we're betting that this would draw a respectable stream of with-young-child customers.

Let's take another example of how fate can be trumped by human action. It's become de rigeur for coffee shops to mount large TV screens on brackets and show soap operas or football matches. Were any of the shops to refuse to install these electronic facilities, they would probably experience a haemorrhage of customers - one that would be very poorly explained indeed by sole reference to 'sheer luck'.

In the same way, Sonny's disposition, his bents and natural talents (if any) are to an extent the gift of the gods. Fate, if you like, casts her vote here. But that's just to look backward. If we orient our thinking to the future, there would be an endless number of things we could do to boost or discourage certain proclivities, cultivate new ones and instil good mental habits.

Ultimately, to think in this manner is the only option if we are to behave as though our personal effort in any field is to count for something. Practically speaking, it's doubtful whether anyone really believes that fate absolutely seals the score in most affairs. But once we allow fortune too much play in our assessment of a situation, it's likely to sap enthusiasm and affect energy levels.

We wouldn't want that. Let's keep fate in its place.