How do you feel about coincidences?
Some people ignore them. Some see them as relating to some mysterious or divine force. Others seek a logical explanation. Some seek logical explanations so eagerly that they invent them, sometimes fairly wildly.
One of the satisfying things about many television programs, detective stories, and the like is that by the end of them, all the things that had seemed to be random and unrelated actually come together. They make sense, and we do like things that make sense, don’t we? Randomness is less welcome.It leaves us feeling uncertain of what may come next, or of what we should do. There are no signposts in randomness.
We use the label “coincidence” when something meaningful occurs and yet appears to be random. It has no apparent reason for happening. (Jung labelled meaningful coincidences “synchronicity,” which is defined as “the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.”)
Coincidence seems to be first cousin to randomness, and so when we encounter it we often try to find ways to explain it. One of the most common explanations is “It’s a small world,” words frequently spoken when, far from home, we encounter someone from our hometown or find that we have something else in common that we would not have expected. Those “small world” coincidences occur so frequently in my life that I even bought the domain name “ItReallyIsASmallWorld.com,” although I’ve not yet done anything with it.
Randomness is sufficiently scary that, when apparent coincidences occur, we tend to look for reasons. We expect there to be a pattern, a cause, and our brains are wired to look for them. Suppose, for example, that you were to do one of those memory word tests. Let us say that many words were presented in apparently random order and reordered and repeated several times. Suppose, too, that they include, for example, the words eggs, bacon, saucer, tree, timer, and lion, plus quite a few others.
Then, after many repetitions, you might be asked how many times you heard “eggs” immediately followed by “bacon,” and then how many times you heard “timer” followed by “lion.” Almost certainly you would have noticed the eggs/bacon combination, because it is familiar and it makes sense. Unless you are a vegetarian/vegan, the word “eggs” is frequently followed by “bacon.” On the other hand, unless you were very alert it is much less likely that you would have noticed the timer/lion combination because they don’t intuitively go together as a familiar pattern.
(Interestingly, if it was “lion” that came first, followed by “timer” you might have noticed it, and wryly wondered if the word “timer” was meant to be “tamer,” because there is logic to “lion tamer.” From then on, you would notice the combination. However, with “timer” coming first, your report of the number of times you heard the timer/lion combinations is likely to be that they did not occur nearly as often as eggs/bacon – even if, in fact, the two pairs appeared together an equal number of times.
Why do I care? Because we waste a lot of time looking for patterns that may or may not exist. Sometimes, however, coincidences just happen. Sometimes they can be amazingly fortuitous, and then the religious among us may throw out a “Thank you,” to whatever deity they follow. Indeed, perhaps there really is a are causation that we cannot see. There is saying, “Coincidence happens when God wants to remain anonymous.” Sometimes,on the other hand, we do need to dig deeply to discover connections that may have been hidden and it may turn out to be fortunate that someone was alert enough to notice a pattern that needs to have attention paid to it. When to search and when accept “not knowing” is one of the enigmas of our lives.
The fact is that at times coincidence really is exactly that. For example, what did you think about the photo above? Did you struggle to figure out how the router is throwing its line of lights up onto the wall? How does that work? Sorry, it is not doing that. There is no causation between the two sets of lights, similar though they appear. It is a straightforward coincidence… of sorts. I have Venetian blinds over the window in my office. To accommodate the string that hold the slats together and controls them, each slat has a hole, and the holes are exactly in line, vertically. The sun’s shadow often throws a vertical line onto the wall, and one day I noticed they were precisely lined up above the router. Naturally, I grabbed my camera. The lights on the router and the pattern on the wall had no causal connection with each other. None at all.
Sometimes, seeking a connection between two apparently separate events makes sense. An earthquake may cause a tsunami many thousands of miles away, and there is a causal connection, although until modern times this may not have been recognized. Sometimes it is fun, and occasionally rewarding, to try to discover why coincidences happen. Often, though, it may be wiser to accept uncertainty than to spend time and energy seeking it for things that do not directly affect us. We have more important work to do…. Don’t we?