Things Happen for a Reason?
Maybe some of us have brains that are inclined to interpret events as the unfolding of a grand purpose. Others of us have brains that are more comfortable with coincidence: sometimes life-changing events happen for no reason at all -- flukes happen. Maybe this is a genetic thing: a predisposition toward placing events in the context of some kind of intentionality or prior narrative may be normally distributed through the population based on DNA. I don’t know.
I am, myself, by nature or by nurture, more on the "a coincidence is just a coincidence" end of the spectrum. But what I’ve learned is that we can choose to make meaning out of the coincidences of our lives. Whether or not there’s a prior narrative, we can connect events with a post facto narrative. Doing so is kinda fun. It has a playful quality.
The concept of meaningful coincidences was first introduced to me about forty years ago – in a bar. I was eighteen-years-old, an undergraduate at Atlanta’s Emory University. I was in that bar with a woman a couple years older, Madeleine, a fellow student whom I’d met in British Lit class. She had a deck of Tarot cards, and she looked like she knew how to use it. I eyed the cards skeptically.
“It’s not,” she explained, “that I believe that your psyche, or the world, or anything exerts some force upon the cards as they are shuffled, causing them to turn up the way they do in an order which your personality uniquely determines. I don’t believe that. I believe some things are random, that quite a lot happens that has no reason for happening. By random chance it just happens to happen. Some things do have a reason for happening – a lot of things don’t. The shuffling of the cards creates randomness. The cards I’m about to turn up for you will have the same probability of being turned up for anybody else. The fact that your Tarot reading produces, say, the Page of Cups here and the Seven of Pentacles there is simple coincidence.”
She was apparently conceding everything to the skeptical debunkers – except that the debunkers infer from the randomness of the way the cards come up to a conclusion that Tarot readings are useless. Madeleine didn't draw that inference. She set about to present me with a layout of thirteen cards – thirteen little mere coincidences, and she suggested ways that the cards in the different positions interrelated into an overall story. It was then up to me to choose whether to make this coincidence meaningful to me. I could decide to make it part of my identity that I’m the guy that the Tarot cards just happened on that particular day to produce that particular story and lift up that particular set of interwoven reminders.
I know that after that build-up, you would like to know what those cards said on that day, but I don't remember that. The point that I’ve carried with me is the idea that the way we make sense of our lives is largely a matter of deciding to give or see meaning in certain of the coincidences of life. Something like Tarot or palm reading or astrology or the I Ching affords an opportunity to think a little more about who you are, to exercise your faculty of deciding what meaning to make of chance events.
Consider, for instance, the year you were born. Certainly, we are made who we are by the world we were born into. Yet the exact specific events that happened to happen in the year of your birth are just a coincidence – available for each of us to creatively play with and fabricate stories of who we are. I happened to have been born in Richmond, Virginia in 1959 – a child of Yankee parents born in the capital of the confederacy, coming into the world the same year that the last surviving civil war veteran left it. That mixture in some ways identifies me. I grew up in Dixie – in small towns in North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia – but with the more Northern sensibility of my parents: not a northerner, but never quite at home among the pick-up trucks, the rebel flags, and the segregation either.
In 1959, Castro came to power, and the Dalai Lama went into exile: Cuba gained a dictator that many Cubans didn’t want, and Tibet lost a spiritual leader that many Tibetans dearly loved. That mixture also points to something about me: I’m suspicious of political revolution, while yearning for spiritual revolution.
An interplanetary future was dawning. 1959 saw the first moon landing, Russia’s Lunik II. The US sent up a couple of monkeys into outer space and brought them back alive. Also that year, jazz musician Ornette Coleman introduced free improvisation – a musical style of making it up as you go along. I remember these last two bits when I find myself feeling rather like a monkey in orbit, making it up as I go along.
Each of us arrived where we are today through some strange and winding series of accidents -- an unlikely and elaborate chain of happenstances. Yet here we are -- a unique and improbable agglomeration of personalities. What an amazing, glorious fluke! We come together to care for each other, affirm and strengthen our common values, work out a way to engage the wider world. We gather to make community, a home of what is of ultimate worth, and to awaken to everything included in this grand fluke.