One pathway to awakening wonder in our lives is the serendipity of coincidence. In fact, if we’re open to it, it’s not just a pathway, but a fast track. Coincidences, however prosaic, elicit our curiosity about the nature of the universe and all that we don’t yet know or understand.
There is something about coincidences that delights us. There are thousands upon thousands of examples to choose from — yet not so many that they lose their strange power over us. And that’s the point — the combination of improbability, timing, and felicity has a kind of magic power. To the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, coincidences were the “wonderful pre- established harmony” of the universe. To Carl Jung, they were “acts of creation in time.” To author and journalist Arthur Koestler, they were “puns of destiny.”
So here are a couple of puns of destiny: A woman named Mrs. Willard Lowell locks herself out of her house in Berkeley, California. While she is trying to figure out what to do, the mailman arrives. Included in the mail for her is a letter from her brother, who had visited recently and accidentally left with the spare key. Inside the letter is the key
And then there is the man doing surveys at a mall in which he has to ask people for their phone numbers. One man being questioned makes up a number and gives it to him. “No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s not your phone number,” the surveyor replies. “Well, why isn’t that my phone number?” the man asks. “Because,” the surveyor says, “the phone number that you just made up is actually my phone number.”
We don’t have to know what coincidences mean, or arrive at some grand conclusion when we encounter them. But they serve as sporadic reminders to maintain our sense of wonder, to stop every now and again and allow ourselves to be fully present in the moment and open to life’s mystery. They’re a sort of forced reboot.
In my experience, whatever your spiritual beliefs, whether you believe in something larger than yourself in the universe or not, we all love coincidences. (There may be some curmudgeons who don’t, but I haven’t met them yet.) “Coincidences are kind of like shortcuts to very big questions about fate, about God, even to people who don’t believe in either one,” said Sarah Koenig, producer of public radio’s This American Life. “The notion that somewhere out there, someone or something is paying attention to your life, that there might be a plan conjured through coincidences.”
In an episode on coincidences, the producers asked listeners to send in their stories. The listeners responded — and the producers read through 1,300 submissions. One was from a man named Blake Oliver. He mentioned to his friend Camille that he wanted a new screensaver for his phone, so she emailed him a photo of her as a child. But in the photo, Oliver also saw his own grandmother. He had grown up in Michigan; Camille in Utah. But when the photo was taken, Camille was in Vancouver on vacation and Oliver’s grandmother happened to be there visiting relatives — and walking through the back of a photo Oliver would see years later. A cosmic photobomb. “It’s crazy,” said Oliver, “not only just in the picture, but perfectly behind her.”
Also on the show was the story of a man named Stephen Lee, who told of inviting his girlfriend Helen’s parents to meet his parents just after the two became engaged. As it happens, they found out that Stephen’s late father had actually dated and proposed to Helen’s mother in Korea back in the 1960s. This coincidence had real meaning for Stephen: “I didn’t have the time with my dad that I wished I had, and then suddenly to kind of have him be an active part of my life again. To think that I can talk to my mother- in- law and hear what he was like in his twenties, something that my mom doesn’t even know.”
Another example came from Paul Grachan, who recounted a story about the day he was considering becoming more serious with his girlfriend Esther. He was thinking about it while buying a sandwich in a deli. As he pulled out his money to pay, he noticed that the name “Esther” was written on one bill. So he kept it. He then framed it and gave it to her. She was taken aback but didn’t say much at the time. Years later, when they’re married and moving to a new apartment, she unpacked it and revealed to him why she reacted like she did. When she was nineteen, she was unhappily dating somebody. “I just thought, how do people know who’s the right person that they’re meant to be with?” she said, recounting that time. “I said, you know what? I’m not going to worry about that. I’m just going to put my name on this dollar bill. And the guy that gets this dollar bill is going to be the guy that asks me to marry him . . . and I knew that we were going to be married the day that you gave me this dollar bill.” The reason she didn’t tell him at the time was because she didn’t want to “freak this guy out” by raising the idea of marriage so soon.
When he finally found out, he was suitably stunned: “I just thought, what does this mean for us? Are we going to invent a time machine? Or are our kids going to bring world peace? Like, what’s the point? Because there’s some sort of bigger thing that we’re not seeing here.”
And that, of course, is the point. There is a bigger thing that we’re not seeing here! I’ve always had a deep love of the mysteries of coincidence and how they can give us tiny glimpses of the structure of the universe — or even a glimpse into the fact that there’s a structure at all. One of my favorite Bible verses comes from Matthew: “Not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without God knowing it” — a marvelous challenge to the existentialist belief that we live isolated and alienated in an indifferent universe.
As my sister, Agapi, recounts in her book Unbinding the Heart, coincidences were strewn all over our lives growing up. “I was raised in Greece with olive oil, feta cheese, and the principle of synchronicity as fare,” she writes. “I had a mother who lived it, breathed it, and affirmed it daily. And my own life was synchronicity in action, from the very start.”
She then tells a story about that start. Five months after I arrived, our mother became pregnant again. But my parents’ marriage was not a happy one (they later ended up divorcing). So they decided not to keep the baby. “But on the morning of the doctor’s appointment,” writes Agapi, “my father had something else on his mind (another kind of transcendence). Their intimate moment in bed that morning made my mother miss her appointment, and she never made another one. She ended up having the baby — me. Synchronicity working in my favor!”
And in mine — since it gave me a sister who has always been my closest friend. And since then synchronicity has never stopped popping into my life. Years later, when I was in my last year at Cambridge, a British publisher who had published Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch happened to see me on TV debating. He sent me a letter wondering if I’d be interested in writing a book. My plans at the time were to go on to grad school at the Kennedy School of Government, so I sent him a letter politely declining. He wrote back and said, what about just having lunch? So I thought, why not? Well, by the end of lunch he was offering me a contract and a small (probably smaller than the lunch tab) advance, which I accepted — and which put me on an entirely different career path. And all because the publisher wasn’t into watching more entertaining television!
There are also plenty of uncanny historical coincidences, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dying on the same day in 1826, which also happened to be not only July 4, but also the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams’s son, John Quincy Adams, who was then the president, wrote in his diary that the coincidence was a “visible and palpable” sign of “divine favor.” A fellow cosigner of the Declaration, Samuel Smith, said in his eulogy of the pair that the coincidence was due to “All- seeing Providence, as a mark of approbation of their well spent lives.” In her examination of possible explanations for the coincidence, Margaret Battin, professor of philosophy at the University of Utah, writes, “What we say about Adams and Jefferson, in the absence of compelling historical evidence, may in the end reflect what we want to say about ourselves.”
Research has shown that our willingness to let ourselves experience the wonder of coincidence really does say something about us. According to Martin Plimmer and Brian King, coauthors of Beyond Coincidence, “People who notice coincidences most tend to be more confident and at ease with life. Every coincidence they experience — even the minor ones — confirms their optimism,” they write. And according to Ruma Falk, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, events in our lives that are not part of a coincidence are less likely to be remembered than those that are.
Plimmer and King note the important role that coincidence plays in narrative. “Allegory and metaphor work by linking together two normally unconnected ideas in order to startle the reader into seeing something they thought they knew in a different light,” they write. “Strictly speaking metaphors aren’t coincidences, as they are man- made, but they work the same trick: fusing unrelated entities to power a revelation.” As an old Chinese saying goes, “No coincidence, no story.”
Carl Jung used the term “synchronicity” to describe events that are “other than causal” — the product of “a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity.” Jung grew interested in synchronicity by hearing stories of his patients that he “could not explain as chance groupings,” and “which were connected so meaningfully that their ‘chance’ concurrence would represent a degree of improbability that would have to be expressed by an astronomical figure.”
To Jung, synchronicity wasn’t just about a chance event, but about the interplay between the chance event and a person’s psychological state at the time. “Synchronicity,” he wrote, “therefore means the simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with one or more external events which appear as meaningful parallels to the momentary subjective state — and, in certain cases, vice versa.” He concluded that “we must regard them as creative acts, as the continuous creation of a pattern that exists from all eternity, repeats itself sporadically, and is not derivable from any known antecedents.”
The concept of simultaneity is especially interesting. By making us rethink the linear nature of time, it actually nudges us closer to how physicists describe time — with past, present, and future laid out together. So coincidences can be thought of as those moments when the invisible threads connecting and binding that timescape become momentarily visible.
One of those threads popped loose as I was working on this very section on coincidences. On my way to the airport for my return flight to New York after Christmas, I gave this part of the book one fi nal read before it went to press. Later, while going through security, TSA officer Jay Judson told me he had a Greek wife and we made small talk about how good her spanakopita was. And then he suddenly said to me, “Do you have a moment for me to tell you a story?” And he began to tell me a coincidence tale!
“My wife’s cousin Mark works at a Greek deli opposite St. Sophia’s church,” he said. “He was born on the Greek island of Zakynthos, and was six months old when the terrible earthquake of 1953 hit. During the earthquake, he was separated from his family, put in foster care, and then sent to live with a couple in the United States who ended up adopting him. More than fifty years later, he was setting up tables in the deli with a part-time waiter who had just started. It turned out that the waiter was his cousin who immediately put Mark in touch with his brother in Zakynthos. ‘You know, you have a big, fat Greek family here that’s dying to meet you!’ his brother told him. Every time I tell this story, I get goose bumps.”
And he pulled up his sleeve to show me the goosebumps on his arm. Here was this big, burly man, visibly moved by a coincidence that hadn’t even happened to him, but to his wife’s cousin — right in the midst of my finishing this section on coincidences (cue the Twilight Zone theme song!).
That’s perhaps why in Beyond Coincidence, the examples used by a majority of respondents when asked about religious or spiritual moments in their lives were about coincidences. But if coincidences are a sign that there is meaning and design in the universe, there are consequences for how we live our lives. Because if there is meaning in the universe, there is meaning in our daily lives and the choices we make. And so we can choose to live in ways that help us live fuller, more complete lives, aligned with what matters: A life that isn’t defined by our salaries and résumés. A life that encompasses all that we are and can become.
Of course, statisticians can, without much diffi culty, explain away coincidence as nothing more than, as Yale scientist Pradeep Mutalik put it, “an interaction of mathematics and human psychology. May your coming week,” he wrote, “be blessed with many interesting coincidences. And may you not assign cosmic significance to them.” To which I say: Assign all the significance you want! And use the signifi cance as an entry point for living a Third Metric life.
What’s the downside, as long as you don’t assign a dogma to them (if x happens it must mean y and you therefore have to do z)? The upside, however, is obvious: Maintaining a childlike sense of awe and curiosity is part of the fun and intense mystery of being alive. Coincidences connect us across time, to one another, to ourselves, and to an invisible order in the universe. We can’t choose where or when they grace us with their presence, but we can choose to be open to their power.
Image courtesy of Pexels.
Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com