|BY DIANE MEDVED|
Everybody’s got a story about some strange coincidence that defies all odds. You’re thinking of an old friend, and he calls just then. You’re humming a song from high school, and it pops up on Spotify.
The first day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, is a special day for the Medved brothers. It’s my husband’s birthday. And his younger brother’s birthday. And the birthday of a still-younger brother. And I share my birthday, same day and date, with my younger sister (Monday, August 6). Eerie? The probability of three siblings sharing the same birthday, by the way, is 1 in 133,000.
Do coincidences suggest a Greater Power steering events, or do weirdly synchronous circumstances just happen randomly? And is it worth marveling over happenings that seem out of the normal realm?
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researcher David B. Yaden compiled his research on varieties of religious experiences, and found a “correlation between coincidences and an increase in positive emotions, better personal relationships and a greater sense of meaning in life,” he told the New York Times. Carl Jung thought “synchronicities,” linking similar events that otherwise have nothing causing their uncanny likeness, are useful means to organize and understand what we encounter.
So, let’s consider a few mind-blowing stories. My interest in this topic came from the newsletter of a think-tank here in Seattle, describing how amazingly unlikely it is that from our vantage, the sun and moon appear the same size, enabling a total solar eclipse. The moon’s diameter is 400 times smaller than the sun, which is 400 times further away from the moon. Any different, and when we squinted through our brightness-blockers on those few fateful days (the next one coming in 2024), the moon would completely cover the sun, never giving us that excitingly perfect fit with bright corona. That’s why scientists dub our solar eclipses “a celestial coincidence.”
My husband, in his books American Miracles, and God’s Hand on America, relates two dozen astoundingly coincidental events in our nation’s founding and development that allowed us to strengthen and prosper. Perhaps the most recounted is the shocking connection between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. “The Atlas of Independence,” John Adams, chose the then-obscure Jefferson to write the Declaration. Adams was the first Vice President of the US, followed by Jefferson. Then they ran against each other for President, twice—Adams won in 1796, and Jefferson in 1800.
Here’s the kicker: Fifty years after Independence, on July 4, 1826, the nation was celebrating—and, miles apart, the two founders were dying. Adams, 90 years old, was recorded by his son, John Quincy Adams, then president, as saying the final words, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He didn’t know that Jefferson, 83, had already succumbed.
Other historical astonishments: Jewish people observe one day every year with great sadness and mourning—a day on which a lengthy list of tragedies befell the nation. Tisha b’Av, the ninth on the Jewish calendar month of Av, marked the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem (in 586 BC and 70 AD), the expelling of Jews from England in 1290, and from Spain in 1492, and the beginning of World War I, which led directly to World War II and the Holocaust.
In Christian history, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed by followers bowing with fronds, on Palm Sunday. He was crucified the following Friday. The US Civil War ended on Palm Sunday, with Gen. Lee surrendering his sword symbolically to US Grant. Then, the following Friday, President Lincoln was assassinated.
And most of us were agog to see the photos on September 8 of rainbows shining over newly-deceased Queen Elizabeth’s homes at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.
Bernard Beitman, MD, defined coincidence as “the striking and unlikely conjunction of two or more events that seem strangely connected.” Events seem more coincidental when they occur within a short period of time, and if the events seem more similar to each other. Dr. Beitman, head of The Coincidence Project, calls serendipity (an unanticipated finding) a kind of coincidence. “Seriality” is another term he applies to coincidence—referring to a cluster of events to which we assign meaning. I remember when my husband was in the hospital undergoing cancer treatment. I’d return home from his bedside and in the mornings often saw eagles circling. I felt reassured, believing they were a message that things would be all right.
When we’re in emotional distress, we might be more likely to interpret physical phenomena as spiritual “signs.” And this can help steady us. But coincidences don’t happen unless we recognize them. Which requires an openness to finding them. I’m not sure there’s much difference between the types of coincidence Dr. Beitman describes in his book, Meaningful Coincidences: How and Way Synchronicity and Serendipity Happen. (By the way, his website has a “Weird Coincidences Survey” anyone can take that determines how sensitive you are to such events.) But I do think that any method to more fully observe and note all features of our environments brings us richer and broader life.
One of the most helpful uses of coincidence is comfort. Bereaved, depressed or dejected people often take heart from whatever we deem a coincidence, especially if we notice it repeatedly. Denise lost her husband, and shortly thereafter believed a dream featuring him was his goodbye. After Laura’s husband, a devoted runner, died, she kept seeing people wearing his favorite workout shoes, as if he was following and protecting her.
One way to enhance awareness of coincidences is to comment on what you see, even to yourself. The startling colors of water in the lake. The twigs in the beak of the nesting bird. The styles worn by people around you. Changes in your children. Framing your observations in an inquisitive and positive way will let you more fully process what you see, and perhaps find unexpected similarities.
The prerequisite sense of wonder must be cultivated. But some remain skeptics. Statistician David J. Hand, in his book The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, doesn’t think any coincidences are out of the ordinary. In fact, he says “The basic human drive for safety and security induces a fundamental unease with the notion that events might happen just by chance.” Why? “…if it turned out that there are no causes, then there’d be no way to manipulate or control outcomes.” He sees science’s ability to explain and predict—and therefore control—mysteries as a means to allay fears and prevent disasters. Non-human forces, he suggests, are merely one way to explain what science had not, or has yet, to understand. And statistics and math do explain a lot—including how larger numbers make “coincidences” more likely.
But the fact is that we want to make some sense of phenomena we find inexplicable, and religion remains a supportive, positive way to do that, proving itself a pillar for billions throughout millennia. Can a statistician believe in God? Of course, because plenty in the world defies data.
Cambridge risk-researcher Sir David Spiegelhalter has been collecting the coincidence stories of anyone who cares to post them to his site. Reading through the astounded accounts evokes in me a “meh” for how unremarkable the stories are. Dr. Spiegelhalter notes that lots of coincidences exist, but go unrecognized: “The amazing thing is not that these things occur, it’s that we notice them,” he told The Atlantic. “That’s why they happen to certain kinds of people.” And so that’s the key—we notice surprising events because we want to find them, because we seek the reassurance of order in the universe, when evidence of that order is lacking in so many other ways.
Often my husband invokes loving feelings recalling our “cute meet” many years ago. We happened to be among the sparse number of swimmers at a Southern California beach on a Tuesday in September. Approaching me on his boogie board in the surf (I was body surfing), he asked coolly, “what do you do that you can come to the beach on a Tuesday afternoon?”
“I’m a writer,” I replied.
Thinking I was another screenplay wanna-be, he asked what I wrote—and I answered “Books.” He said he was also an author, and described a book I’d happened to have just reviewed in the Los Angeles Times. “Oh, you must be Michael Medved,” I responded. He knew my name as well, since apparently I’d written his only lukewarm review.
What if the tome I’d plucked off the Book Review shelf was another author’s? What if we’d gone to the beach on different days, or to unaligned stretches of sand? We never fail to marvel over our kismet, and reaffirm the magic of our coincidental connection.
Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and author of seven books, most recently, Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing your Marriage. She and her husband, author and radio host Michael Medved (770 AM, noon-3 pm) raised their three children in a Seattle suburb, and can now be seen picking up litter with their five grandchildren. Diane’s current project is The Case for Children; reach her at DianeMedved.com.