Serendipity and Synchronicity
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 8, 2006
"Dearest Wife, Just got checked in. Everything prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Your Loving Husband.” Then he added: “P.S. Sure is hot down here."
Life is just chocked full of the most mind-boggling coincidences. Some things really make you wonder. Now that story I just told you wasn’t true. But these are:
On December 5, 1664, a ship sank in the Masai Straight off the coast of northern Wales. Of its 81 passengers, only one survived. His name was Hugh Williams. On December 5, 1785 a ship carrying 60 passengers sank in the same waters; the sole survivor was named Hugh Williams. Then, on December 5, 1860, another ship with 25 people on board sank in the same area. Its one survivor? His name was Hugh Williams. I think you see the pattern.
If that series of coincidences doesn’t intrigue you, here are a few more:
About a hundred years ago, a German woman lost her wedding ring, which upset her very much, of course. But in time, she put it out of her mind, and had almost forgotten about it—until one day, about 40 years later, when she was at home, in her kitchen, slicing potatoes—and there was the ring, embedded in one of them.
Or how about the case of Charlotte Muse and her co-workers who were annoyed one day by a housefly buzzing around their office? One of them slammed the fly with an open book-- a dictionary, as they later discovered. When they looked inside, they found the fly, smashed to death right on the word “housefly”.
One more: A grandfather clock in Winnipeg, Canada stopped on the very same days that its owner died, at the age of 72. According to family tradition, the clock was supposed to be passed along to the family’s eldest son; but since the family had no male heirs, the widow kept it. She tried to have it repaired; several clock makers looked at it; no one could figure out why it didn’t work. Then one afternoon, several years later, the woman returned the home after running some errands, and heard the clock ticking away. Right at that moment, the telephone rang; it was her son-in-law with the happy news that her first grandson had been born, just a few minutes before.
In Herb Gardner’s play, A Thousand Clowns, the main character tries to teach his young nephew something about the wonder and surprise of life. He tells him:
It’s these amazing coincidences—this synchronicity—which allow us to experience serendipity: to make important discoveries about life when we least expect them. Synchronicity and serendipity remind us to stay humble before the Mystery (which is perhaps the most genuine religious attitude there is). They remind us, as Hamlet said, “There is more to life, dear Horatio, than is written in your philosophy.” The recurrence of synchronicity in our lives is like the Spirit popping up its head from time to time, and declaring: “Here I am, over here, catch me if you can!”
Serendipity is our catching an inkling of the Spirit when we can, from time to time, perhaps in the least expected places.
The great psychologist Carl Jung defined “synchronicity” as “meaningful coincidence”; as “deeper” coincidences which somehow helps us to understand ourselves and our lives more clearly. Jung first became intensely interested in synchronicity when he was treating a woman at his practice in Vienna.
Jung thought that the woman was so locked inside her head, so caught up in rationally explaining away everything about her life, that she was not able to reach that deeper level of understanding that makes therapy effective. She had logical answers and explanations for everything and so, she couldn’t grow anywhere.
Jung was running out of ideas on how to treat her; in his own words, he wanted to find some way to "sweeten" her rationalism, to get inside the intellectual walls she had built around herself, and open her up to change.
One afternoon, Jung was seated across from the woman in his office, and she was telling him about a dream she had had the night before. In the dream, she had been given a valuable piece of jewelry, a golden scarab, a golden beetle. Now, in ancient Egyptian symbolism, the scarab represents transformation or metamorphosis, and Jung knew this, and so he grew even more intrigued. As he listened to the woman, he heard something tap—tap-- tapping against the window behind him, as though it was trying to get his attention, and come into the room. Jung got up; he opened the window; he then caught a large insect as it flew in. When he saw what it was, he was amazed: it was a scarab beetle, mostly gold in color. "Here is your scarab," he told the woman as he handed her the insect. The woman, of course, was astonished; she finally understood that not everything in life can be rationally explained away. Her resistance to inner change was broken by the incident, and, according to Jung, she made great progress in therapy after the golden beetle came into her life.
Of course, most of us in the course of our lives probably won’t experience an incident as dramatic as that woman in Jung’s office. Or the woman with the wedding ring in the potato.
But we have all, I would daresay, have experienced moments of synchronicity and serendipity which bring that tingle to our spines when we think about them. Sometimes, things just come together, seemingly coincidentally. Perhaps there’s more significance to these convergences than we might at first believe.
For instance, the name of someone we haven’t thought of for years suddenly pops into our heads. Then, a few hours later, there they are, suddenly reappearing in our lives—or we’ll read about them in the newspaper—or, a mutual acquaintance will say something like: “You’ll never guess who I saw the other day…” and it will be that very same person your memory just conjured up.
We think about how we haven’t seen Judy for a while, and then we turn the corner at the Stop and Shop, and there she is. That’s the synchronicity; the serendipity comes when we stop and consider “Why is Judy back in my life? What lesson—what information—what clues about my life’s purpose—does she have for me?”
We hold the door for someone at the library, and they thank us, and we go on our separate ways. Then, several hours later, they reappear and hold the door for us at the post office. We might laugh at the coincidence, then go on our separate ways again. But it might be better if we both stopped what we were doing, if only for a while, and chatted with one another—and attempted to discern why it is that we were each introduced into the daily pattern of the life of the other. What information does each of us have for the other? What are we here to learn, and to teach?
I don’t know about you, but if more than two people mention the same book, or the same author, to me in the course of a short period of time, I usually take it as an indication that I’m supposed to be reading that writer—that someone’s trying to tell me something, and that there are lessons there for me to learn. If someone reappears in our lives from days gone-by, maybe there is some unfinished business that needs attending to, or some lesson from the past that we need to reclaim.
Now, what I’m not saying is that our lives are preordained and predetermined, and that we’re predestined to do the things we do. I’m not saying that our lives’ stories have already been written, and that there’s nothing for us to do but passively to act out the script that has already been written for us. I’m not saying that at all.
But I am saying that life is seldom as linear and rational and straightforward as it seems, nor is life simply one-dimensional. Life is much more interdependent than we realize, and we are more intimately and intricately connected than we know.
Now, thinking about physics usually gives me a headache. If the truth be told, I tried to avoid science in high school and college as much as I could. But there are some ideas in modern physics that really fascinate me, and that stoke those fires of mystery and wonder within me as surely as any religious text. One of these is something called Bell’s theorem. A scientist named Bell studied pairs of sub-atomic particles (the smallest bits of matter) in great detail, and he discovered some amazing things. One thing he discovered is that paired particles remain in relationship, even when they are separated over space and time. So, if you kept one particle here in your laboratory at MIT, and took the other and moved it, somehow, as far away as possible—even to the other side of the moon-- if you spun one of them clockwise, the other would begin spinning counter-clockwise, just as if they were in the same laboratory. Bell’s theorem suggests that our reality is best understood on the basis of relationships, rather than on individuality.
Writer Philip Cousineau says that if we really want to appreciate synchronicity, we need to think of it not as a linear matter (Point A to Point B), but as a field theory—another insight from modern science. The events of our lives are not a simple matter of causality—of one thing leading to another, which leads to the next, which leads to the next. Reality is more like a field of influences and events, all operating on each other at the same times and often unpredictably. We are not just individual men and women. We can think of ourselves, instead, as magnetic force fields, interacting with all other fields with which we come into contact. What an amazing human universe that kind of vision creates. How profound and powerful then, can our connections with one another be.
“There are no mistakes, no coincidences,” said Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. “All events are blessings given to us to learn from.” It is not by sheer accident that we come into each other’s lives, either. “We live under the bombardment of synchronicity,” writes Andrei Condrescu. Or, as another writer put it: “Synchronicity is the way life knocks two unrelated things together to make sparks.” It is that bombardment which makes us shake in wonder at just how amazing this life can be. It is those sparks of connection—and interconnection—which light up our lives, which illuminate our lives, and warm up our lives when the night might seem too cold otherwise. “There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.” There is more to heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our philosophy. Or, as the great scientist Faraday said, “There is nothing in life too wonderful to be true.”
It all comes down to how we’re going to view this heaven and this Earth we inhabit. If we hurtle through time and space, in our hermetically sealed cars through our hermetically sealed lives, racing to get from Point A to Point B, constantly tyrannized by all the things we have to complete on our chore list before we can feel justified in being alive, then we’ll probably miss out on many of the small, everyday miracles life offers us. But if, instead, we see this life as a journey to Serendip—and this world as an enchanted island-- then who knows what amazing things we may yet apprehend? As Einstein himself reminds us: There are two ways we can view this world of ours. Either we can say that nothing is a miracle; or, we can say that everything is a miracle. It seems obvious to me which is the more spiritually healthy perspective.
The ancient Hindus had an image of the world strikingly similar, I think, to our belief in the interdependent web of all existence. The world, they said, is like a huge net. At junctures in that net, holding the webbing together, are brilliant, beautiful gemstones. Each moment, any one stone will reflects all the other stones, and is itself reflected in the others as well. This, said the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, is what coincidence and synchronicity are about: The connections are always there; at certain especially brilliant moments, the connections shine through all the more brightly.
As Susan Milnor has written: “We see [the connections], and know them, and trust them. For brief thrilling moments we realize the truth, that we are more deeply connected than we dare to imagine.”
Synchronicity reminds us to find the connections, to look out for them.
Serendipity reminds us to stay alert—to open our eyes and ears—to open our hearts—to keep watch for the Spirit and the lessons we need to learn in this life—oftentimes where we might least expect to find them.
Faith tells us that out of the tangled threads of our lives, there can emerge a pattern which connects, and which gives us some sense of meaning. Discerning that pattern is a great part of the reason we are here. May we learn to be humble, and a friend of the Mystery. Who knows, then, how we yet may be surprised?