February 02, 2006

Synchronicity: The Psalm-Reader and the Peacenik

Does synchronicity seek out people who believe in it, the way lightning seeks a lightning rod? Or do they, seeking it, find it where it isn’t, like prospectors deceived by the glint of sunlight on sand?

Here’s a true anecdote I heard of that happened in Austin just a couple of days ago:

A young woman, a convert to a rather rigid fundamentalist version of Christianity, was sitting in her apartment reading Psalms. Suddenly she felt a powerful, almost overwhelming impulse: something inside her was telling her she had to go out and head downtown. She walked downtown and came upon a peace rally, where she began talking to a man about her experience. He, a religious believer of a different kind, began talking to her about the cause of peace, and she became an enthusiastic participant in the rally. Almost immediately, they struck up a nonsexual mentor-protegee relationship, and with his encouragement the brimstone wrathfulness of her beliefs is softening, opening up room for something bigger and more loving. He sees it – perhaps they both do – as a God-given opportunity for cult deprogramming.

Now, there’s no reason to postulate a mystical or supernatural force behind this in order to call it synchronicity. Let’s assume that the young woman went out of her apartment for perfectly natural psychological reasons: she was bored and frustrated, she sensed something unkind and unfulfilling and unconvincing in her sectarian faith, and she was too young to sit at home alone all evening reading Psalms, so she got up and took a walk. But being of a supernatural inclination, she attributed it to an unseen mystical force. Then, by chance, she met a man who was ready to pull stray souls into his magnetic field, ready to make a convert out of someone’s previous convert.

If it hadn’t happened, no one would have been the wiser. But it did happen, and so they were wiser.

Let’s say that statistically it was more likely not to have happened; but in this case probability took the less likely route, and something meaningful happened.

My point is that events with the potential for life-changing meaning occur all the time, but for the most part it is the people who are already open to such meaning who find it. The task of being human is to find meaning. Some people overdo it, and crash into omens everywhere, and, veering from one half-glimpsed sign to another, remain permanently off course. But equally sad never to see such signs, and never know what wondrous voyages you could have taken while walking down the street.

The choice between believing it’s synchronicity and believing it’s coincidence doesn’t have to be exclusive. Etymologically the two words mean much the same thing. The young woman’s experience was a co-incidence, an occurrence of two events together, and it was a syn-chronicity, a joining together at the same time.

It’s like playing the lottery: the chances of coincidence between your lottery number and the winning number are small, but if you don’t pick a number they’re nonexistent. To find any gold at all, you may have to be decived by a lot of glints of sunlight.