The Chance to Move Forward

Maria Mayo Robbins - Nashville, Tennessee
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, January 14, 2008
Maria Mayo Robbins

When Maria Robbins was 25-years-old, an intruder broke into her home. The violent encounter made her question the role of chance in her life. But Robbins has found that the frightening event has helped her embrace life experiences more fully.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe in chance.

Strings of unexpected encounters mark my life. I believe that chance has guided me — jolted me sometimes — onto paths I wouldn’t have chosen but needed to follow whether I knew it or not. Chance encounters have led me across continents and into unanticipated worlds.

At 21, I first visited Italy. As I struggled with a mouthful of college Italian to find the word for “towel” in a hostel one morning, an older woman laughed, straightened out my garbled attempts, and invited me to her home. Chance gently pushed me, and led me to a lifelong connection to her family, their small town of Castelfranco Veneto and, several years later, the opportunity to live there.

But chance is not always kind. When I was 25 years old, chance led an intruder to break into my home in the middle of a quiet spring night. The violence of that night and months of rehabilitation left me questioning how I could ever find meaning in such a vicious stroke of fortune. But in the years that followed I drew even closer to my family and became a more empathetic friend. I relished the ability to walk, or even run, on my own. I did all the things I had always wanted to do: I pierced my nose, flew to Israel, and hauled a rented grand piano up to my eighth-floor apartment. I lived a life in vivid moments. I followed the questions raised by the attack into graduate school, where today I continue to study and work for justice for victims of violence. I kept going, and meaning took hold in unexpected places.

As a student of religion, I read and write about people and texts that desperately seek cosmic order in a world of chaos. Coincidence threatens the divine order of creation and must be explained. For myself, I believe that chance creates order in the world. We can’t choreograph life events, but we can clasp the hands of those who appear in our paths and see where they lead us. So many chance encounters have moved me forward, offering me direction and a sense of purpose, if I was willing to follow.

My belief in chance lets me see life as brimming with possibility: the person next to me in line at the airport who becomes a lifelong friend, the professor in the elevator who asks a provocative question, or the soldier I meet at an outdoor café in Jerusalem who takes me on a romantic tour of the city, leaving me with an indelible memory.

And as much as I have resisted saying this for many years, even the unwelcome and cruel strikes of chance must somehow find their place in the order of our lives. Believing this — believing in chance — I can always pick up my body and move forward.

Maria Mayo Robbins is a doctoral candidate in religion at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. She also teaches biblical languages at a local college, reads voraciously, is writing a book about forgiveness and tries to take new chances every day.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.