Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Larger than Life

Claire Romaine's picture

Philadelphia is quite literally larger than life.  All around us on the parkway there were huge, imposing buildings.  They were imposing, intimidating, incriminating halls not because of their size but their age.  Their echoing chambers filled with the history of centuries, telling the stories of the great heroes long past, all bear down on me.  It’s a beautiful and epic place, but the walls themselves seem to demand silence and awe, as if you could somehow destroy the integrity of the place by being anything less than amazed.  The eyes of carvings and statues follow us around the rooms and along the sidewalks.  Their exaggerated size and features look down upon us as if we must feel privileged to walk down the same paths that others once did.  And I do feel awed; I do feel a bit amazed that after all of these years I can be in the same place people once worked and lived hundreds of years ago.  But this is what I mean by larger than life.  Those giant statues?  We can never fill those shoes.

And the halls of the Free Library can never possibly be filled with life.  It seems like nothing short of defilement to make noise in the hallowed hall, yet how can there be human life without the ruckus of noise and mess of people shifting through the place on their way to somewhere else.  It is quite easy to become tired of gaping at a place.  After three hours of wandering between the library and the art museum, it all seemed just a little bit boring.  Passing statue after statue, Greek-looking building after Greek-looking building, history as seen from a sidewalk can only be so entrancing before it becomes completely impersonal.  This is what we, as tourists, discovered in Philadelphia while gaping at city hall, and asking each other what sight we wanted to see next.

Already, in such a massive city we had run out of ideas because we were officially off our tourists’ map.  Standing at the center of the old city, we just stared at each other, not knowing quite where to go next. In the end it was up to someone to pick a cardinal direction, and we just set off.  After all of the purposeful wandering, we just let ourselves walk.  We thought we were vaguely headed towards Chinatown, but I don’t think any of us really cared. 

This is what Cass Sunstein was talking about in his article on “The Architecture of Serendipity”, but in a different context.  He was trying to make students understand the need for diverse experiences in the classroom, and to understand that “however unpleasant and jarring they can be, unchosen, unanticipated encounters play a crucial role” in an individual’s development.  Serendipity can broaden a student’s mind in class, but it is also equally valid in the world outside the sheltered bubble of a college campus.  In Philadelphia when we stopped looking for things to see and just allowed the city to move around us, we found far more ‘fun’ things to do.

Just off the main road we saw a blinking sign, with arrows directing us inside.  It was just one of those things “that catch your eye” but inside it was the rather large Reading Terminal Market ripe for exploration. There in the crowded masses of people pushing us past stalls of every kind of food imaginable, it was somehow less suffocating than the spacious, echoing halls of the historic buildings.  It was the first place that I didn’t feel like an incompetent tourist, bumbling my way around and disrupting the locals.  Here was one of those “common spaces in which different types of people mingle together”, not that it was intentional diversification, but it just happened by the nature of chance and the law of large numbers.  The sights, the smells, the tastes, bombarding us on all sides, drowned out the long day of walking and made our earlier sightseeing seem dull in comparison.

While I, in general, like my life planned out in advance, I can understand the need to just let things happen.  It’s a desire to get lost in an experience you might never have thought you would have.  It might be a chance to do something you never even knew existed.  It doesn’t necessarily have to “change your life” like Sunstein suggests, but if you let yourself give in to chance, you might just find something completely unexpected.