As I was sitting cross-legged lining up dominos on my aunt’s kitchen floor, she told me the domino effect was teaching me to make good decisions in life. In my pig-tailed, youthful wonder I couldn’t internalize her profound advice, but years later, I realized she was right. In the opening scene of “Collateral Beauty,” Will Smith’s character Howard seeks a resolution by setting off an impressive domino structure as he grieves the death of his six-year-old daughter to cancer. One flick of the wrist and rows upon rows of all colors of dominoes give way to intersecting paths, toppling structures and branches of dead ends.
Last year, as one of the thousands of freshmen in a handful of residence halls, hundreds of hallways and numerous rooms, I ended up living across the hall from someone I played softball against in high school. I doubt I’ll ever know the probability of that happening, but it still feels like too much of a coincidence. Of all the people that could have been placed in that exact room in 4th Butler of Mary Markley Residence Hall, she was someone who, before coming to the University of Michigan, knew both me and my hometown. She was someone who shared my interest in playing club softball and was willing to take on all the boys in pickup basketball at the Central Campus Recreation Building. It was someone who would quickly become one of my best friends and a crucial facet of my freshman year experience that was devastatingly altered just over a year ago by the ongoing pandemic.
Despite the sad end to my time in Markley, the instances in which I felt lucky my freshman year are innumerable labyrinths of dominos. Upon creating my first-semester schedule, there were tons of freshman-level reading requirement courses that fit with my schedule, and I arbitrarily chose one. My Graduate Student Instructor for English 125 became the most influential person I have encountered at the University and impacted my thinking, writing and academic interests in ways I will never be able to fully articulate. During a required seminar for freshmen, I made one of my closest friends after mutual laughter when a student started snoring on her shoulder. From singing karaoke in someone’s house near East Quad Residence Hall to airdropping pictures of my dog to clueless diners in Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall, some of my best memories from my freshman year were made from spontaneous moments and last-minute plans with strangers.
Needless to say, my time in Markley did not end as wonderfully as it began. Now, a year after students packed up their residence hall rooms and apartments during the onset of what would become the worst pandemic in a hundred years, I don’t feel as warm and fuzzy as I did sharing a twin XL with hallmates while binging Netflix or sitting under the indoor street lights of the Chemistry Building. In the mess of reflecting on the colorful moments, full of teary-eyed laughter, too many Mosher-Jordan cookies and feelings that if people are truly supposed to end up somewhere, that this is where I was supposed to be, I wonder how I came to be sitting here, hands on the keyboard. I wonder how I was lucky enough to end up across the hall from Kat. I wonder how I ended up at the University. And all I see are dominos.
I know that these ponderings are arguably futile since I will never fully understand the way luck and my own have led me to my current circumstances of being a student at this University that has allowed me to feel lucky about my hallmates or my remarkable English 125 GSI. I will never know whether I would have been admitted to the University if I hadn’t been glued to a book after school every day from first through fifth grade or if I had taken one less SAT exam practice test. I will never know whether I would have ever been in such a position to read after school, let alone exist, if my mom had not spent every day after elementary school working on her family farm and cooking for a family of eight. I’ll never be able to distinguish the extent of my responsibility for my present circumstances, in part because luck and free will interact to create reality. I had no control over being born, nevertheless into a family that raised me to be able to apply and enroll at the University. But I chose to read every day after school. I had no control over growing up in Michigan with one of the best public universities in the world in my backyard. But I took the Advanced Placement classes, served on student Senate and applied — and luckily, my application resonated enough to set off the next domino of my enrollment. The unfathomable fragility and intricacy of our circumstances leave us with much uncertainty, yet we are curious to explore, understand and, in some ways, control the intersections of how the universe acts and how we act in the universe that create reality as we know it.
Within the quandaries of free will and fate, it seems that our lives are a product of the two — are we either absolutely powerful or powerless over our ability to make decisions and influence our circumstances? Be it fate, physics, some higher power or some combination of all three, our lives are labyrinths of dominos, a line of paths converging and diverging, twisting into roundabouts and dead ends, falling into mountains of obstacles and sharp turns. The paths of our lives are not mazes, but reflecting on the reality that reality is a product of what we control and all that we cannot make us feel as though we are lost in one. I do not think we will ever fully understand how the dominos are positioned or apportioned or why they fall the way they do. Now more than ever, I am overwhelmed and exhausted by this notion. But despite being unable to fathom exactly how reality comes to be, how I have come to be sitting here, in this exact moment, writing this, I cannot entertain the idea of dismissing our role in creating our circumstances and contributing to the state of our world by believing that “it is what it is” or even worse, that “everything happens for a reason.”
This is not to say that we ought to constantly consider the profound mechanics of the product of fate and will. Whatever led me to laugh on the fourth floor of Markley on Thursday nights and sing Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” to the 3 a.m. audiences of the Butler bathroom merits little speculation compared to the unpacking of events of the past year. The first is partially a product of my doing, and the latter is something that I have relatively little control over, though it has come to significantly alter my life. Nevertheless, contemplating both situations has led me to recognize the domino effect in each, created by the intricacies of chance and human decision-making. The role of human decision-making in creating the current state of the world, regardless of the extent of the impact, asserts the importance of human agency. In many ways, society places a premium on human agency, for both better and worse. In the case of the pandemic, human agency has contributed to the millions of lives lost to COVID-19 over the past year as it has simultaneously saved others. I am not sure where we draw the line between universal forces and will, but following guidelines and internalizing their impact in the realness of whether someone lives or dies bluntly indicates the importance of human agency despite uncertainty. Human agency is necessary to critically consider when reflecting on how we came to this point, and furthermore when holding individuals accountable, writing the history books and learning lessons from this dark time such that we can create and hope for a better future.
In light of the overwhelming uncertainty and confusion towards the origins of my own life experiences, I ultimately feel inclined towards the manta of controlling what we can control. In “Collateral Beauty,” Smith’s character says human decisions are influenced because we “long for love, we wish we had more time and we fear death,” while these elements simultaneously exist in and influence the universe as we experience it. While we are unable to fully control love, time or death, we value and honor their existence and influence on the decisions we make in spite of the uncertainty. Since realizing my sister will be moving across the country in the fall, I take every opportunity to see her before our paths spent together as children, and now as young adults, are about to diverge indefinitely. Seeing the toll of the pandemic on my friends and family as the death count rises leads me to send more letters, cards and voicemails to convey my love for the people in my life.
We must revere and respect the role of human agency in the domino effect. We cannot dismiss the significance or undermine the complexity of how fate and humans will interact even if we can never understand it. I’ll never understand how I came to sit here or consider all the ways I could be somewhere else doing something else at this exact moment in time. My hands on this keyboard and your eyes following these words are dominos profoundly placed by love, time and death, by luck and will to form reality; through the twists and turns, highs and lows, waves and ripples, countless spirals and tendrils set throughout the journey of life, we accept the domino effect for what it is, our reality, and do our best to make it one of profound and bold purpose, meaning and collateral beauty.
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