Martha Beck is the bestselling author of The Way of Integrity and host of the podcast Bewildered. This article first appeared as "Chances of a Lifetime" in the September 2016 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
When I began writing, my lucky animal was the tortoise, because writers need to be soft inside, have a tough outer shell, and stick out their neck to move forward. Then I wrote a controversial book about a certain religion, which provoked a few crazy threats, and the tortoise didn’t seem up to the challenge. I needed an animal that could look danger in the eye. While packing for my book tour, I thought, Well, I was born in the Year of the Tiger. I guess I could go with the tiger.
Just then a friend phoned and greeted me with “Hi, tiger!” She’d never called me that before. Huh. Then the doorbell rang. It was FedEx delivering a huge photograph of a tiger, which an acquaintance had sent as a gift. Huh. Later, when I checked in to my hotel room, I noticed a botanical print titled Tiger Lilies: Each flower petal was actually a drawing of a tiger’s face. Huh. That evening, a reader gave me a carving of a creature with a turtle’s shell and a tiger’s head. Huh, huh, HUH. I started to suspect these events were more than mere happenstance.
Maybe you’re rolling your eyes right now, like a friend of mine who wants to retire the word miracle from the English language and replace it with goddamn coincidence. Or maybe you’re a crystal-toting, Birkenstock-clad mystic who sees angels in your grilled tofu. I’m somewhere in between. I assume most coincidences are pure chance. But I find some so improbable that I can’t believe we’re living in a completely random universe.
Take the research on twins raised apart, who often turn out to have bizarrely similar lives. In one study, twin brothers were both named James by their adoptive families; they both married women named Linda, then second wives named Betty. One named his son James Alan; the other named his James Allan. Both had dogs called Toy, smoked Salem cigarettes, and worked in law enforcement.
These kinds of stories leave me convinced that I should stay open to the possibility of magic—but I don’t want to just fling reason aside. So I’ve come up with a method for separating the mystical from the mundane: When I have an amazingly unlikely experience, I pose three questions. Actually, one question, asked three ways: (1) Why is this happening to me? (2) Why is this happening to me? (3) Why is this happening to me?
Let’s say I hear the word erinaceous (as in “relating to or resembling a hedgehog”) three times in one day: The first thing I do is ask myself, Why is this happening to me? I know the likeliest answer is “Just ’cause.” Since I have a doctorate in sociology, I associate the word significant with purely mathematical terms: Scientists consider an event significant—that is, no longer attributable to chance—only after rigorous analysis. I also know that people tend to read significance into unrelated events, especially if they’re looking for evidence to support things they already believe. This is called confirmation bias, and everyone is guilty of it, especially in times of fear or uncertainty.
For example, a friend looking for reassurance during her traumatic divorce raved to me about her new psychic. “Right off the bat,” she said, “he tells me, ‘You’re going through some changes.’ I mean, wow! Bull’s-eye, right?”
I thought, Dude, literally everyone is going through some changes.
With great excitement, she continued: “And two minutes later I saw a bird in flight! Like the universe was saying ‘Fly away!’ I mean, that could not be a coincidence.”
Oh, yes, my dear. Yes, it could.
Next time you experience an incredible coincidence, keep in mind that your brain is programmed to seek patterns—that’s how your ancestors spotted predators, created language, and remembered the way back to their cave. Knowing you are a pattern recognition machine may help you hit the brakes before spending your nest egg on a “psychic” con artist or moving to Peru because you happen to hear some pan flutes.
But say you have an experience that’s just too coincidental to chalk up to sheer coincidence. Play detective. Raise one eyebrow and ask, Why is this happening to me?
Psychiatrist Carl Jung had a term for meaningful coincidences: synchronicity. He wasn’t just talking about interesting surprises, like getting a lottery number that matches your birth date. Synchronicity is what happens when seemingly unrelated events coincide in improbable ways that have some sort of significance for you. Jung believed synchronicities were evidence of a unifying consciousness at play in the universe, creating physical manifestations of what’s happening in our psyche. We can use these synchronicities to better understand ourselves; for example, my day of many tigers helped me see the part of myself that was strong and steadfast, even though most of me felt terrified and small.
I have experienced some coincidences that sound unbelievable, even to me. For example, a South African schoolteacher once told me that seeing a crippled wild elephant reminded her to include children with disabilities in her classes; as the parent of a son with Down syndrome, I found her story profoundly meaningful. Two hours later, several miles away, that same elephant dragged herself up a rocky hill to the place where I was sitting. She simply stood there, trunk extended toward me as if in salute.
Things like this happen to me frequently. Since I’m certainly no more deserving than anyone else, I often find myself asking, Why is this happening to me? You should ask the same thing when you encounter coincidences so meaningful, they seem to have been crafted specifically for you.
My answer to that question jibes with Jung’s: I do think that something more than chance is at work in the universe. While reality usually babbles in the meaningless music of randomness, it sometimes speaks to us in a language we understand. Why? Maybe because our small consciousness is intimately bound up with consciousness writ large, and we may need a little nod from a force that’s greater and wiser than we are.
Why is this happening to me?
When you’re evaluating a coincidence of your own, ask that question like
a statistician, then a detective, then a seeker. Maybe you’ll consider the possibility that you could be connected to everything in the universe, and everything in the universe could be connected to you, and meaning flows between the two in a mysterious constant stream.