By Everette Chapman
One of my favorite of all words is “serendipity.” It just trips off the tongue, and it goes dancing and singing on its way. It has been a favorite word of mine since the Hootenanny days of the 1960’s, when the Serendipity Singers took their place alongside the New Christy Minstrels, Simon and Garfunkel, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. I am sure that at least a few of you are old enough to remember those days.
At that time, however, I didn’t know what “serendipity” meant; I just loved the word. Actually, the term was coined in 1754 by Sir Horace Walpole and is defined by Webster as “The ability of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” That is perhaps an oversimplification of the whole concept of serendipity, but it will serve as a place to begin.
Sir Horace’s own starting place for introducing “serendipity” into our verbiage was an ancient Persian legend about “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Those mythical princes, in their travels, were always discovering, quite by happenstance, wondrous things they had not been seeking. Hearing that there was adventure to be found in a certain place, they would head out for that destination, only to be surprised by unexpected adventures that occurred on their way there. Walpole called these unexpected, stumbled-upon treasures, “serendipities.” In fact, so very many of the discoveries and inventions we benefit from today were serendipities.
- Christopher Columbus, for example was seeking a direct route to Asia when, as Emerson suggested, he “stubbed his toe” on America.
- Thomas Edison, looking for an electric light, found a phonograph.
- A chemist, holding over the fire a test tube with a few grains of rice in it, happened to drop the test tube, and when he picked it up, the grains had exploded. Voila! Puffed rice!
- Louis Pasteur, who once said “Chance favors the prepared mind,” while looking for a way to keep wine from spoiling, found by such chance the process of pasteurization of milk.
- Crawford Long, of Jefferson, Georgia, heard an itinerate lecturer tell about “laughing gas” which, when inhaled, made people laugh-happy. Having had some experience with ether, Dr. Long tried it out. He put a man to sleep. Oliver Wendell Holmes named what he did “anesthesia.” Serendipity!
- William Roentgen, a professor in a Bavarian university, was working after class one day with a vacuum tube for improved photography. Leaning wearily on the table, he saw some unusual fluorescent action that started him down a trail to the discovery of X-rays.
- Perhaps you know the story of Dr. Alexander Fleming’s laboratory accident that gave birth to penicillin. The account is that an open window and a gust of wind blowing through it contaminated the plate cultures in Dr. Fleming’s lab in St. Mary’s Hospital in London. Suddenly, through his microscope he saw that wonderful blue mold that delivered a knock-out blow to all kinds of little bugs. Serendipity!
- There’s more. There was a man who watched the lid of a boiling kettle rise from the generated steam. From that observation he went on to invent the steam engine.
- Then there was the man who watched a lamp swinging in the Cathedral of Pisa and got the idea for the grandfather clock.
- Alexander Graham Bell was trying to improve the telegraph when he invented the telephone.
- Charles Goodyear spent many good years trying to make rubber less sticky. One night, by sheer accident, he left near a hot stove a piece of rubber he had smeared with sulfur. The next morning it was “vulcanized,” named by Goodyear after Vulcan, the god of fire. Once more, serendipity!
Serendipities, however, are not restricted only to scientists and inventors. Someone has suggested, and Jesus certainly concurred, that happiness is such an occurrence. “Happiness,” we are told, “is like a butterfly. Pursue it and it eludes you; get busy doing something else, and it will come and light on your shoulder.”
Jesus tells us that one of the most wonderful serendipities of all – greatness – is available to us all. He suggested that greatness, itself, is a serendipity. He stated that “Whosoever would be greatest among you, let him be the servant of all.” He, in fact, lived out this principle in His own life. Greatness by serving others? Surely not. Yet Jesus and many other great men and women through the centuries have given credence to that truism.
The late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Father Damien of Hawaii, Gandhi of India, and countless others bear witness to the fact that greatness truly is a serendipity; they found it by being servants. You and I can discover it the same way. Would that we might have more truly “great” people among us, willing to give, to serve, and to do. Might you and I live in such a way as to be counted as one of that number? So many wonderful discoveries – love, happiness, greatness, usefulness, so many things – can be ours while we are going about serving others.