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Amazing Stories of Coincidence and the Mystery Behind Them
By Martin Plimmer, Brian King
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Martin Plimmer and Brian King
All rights reserved.
THE COSMIC YES!
I know we've met before.
Let's talk. I'm sure we'll find things in common — broad strokes first: language, race, nationality, gender, front door color, love of Italian food, the desire to jump in puddles ... this book!
Soon we'll narrow the focus: places we have both visited, times we have nearly met, events at which we were separated only by people we didn't know, people we know in common....
The more we look the more we'll find. Before long we'll discover we have lived in the same town, or attended the same school, were born in the same hospital, had the same accountant, the identical dream.... Perhaps we traveled on a bus together — perhaps we have rubbed shoulders on a bus!
The idea makes us shiver. Why? Does it mean anything? Not objectively. After all, we rub shoulders with strangers on buses every week and it doesn't make us shiver.
But now we are no longer strangers. And now, knowing each other, we can see that we have always known each other. If, after this meeting, we become friends, we will think those former meetings and almost meetings very significant indeed. We will call them coincidences, but we will think them more than that. The trick of being personal is in the nature of coincidence. It is always particular, always subjective, always to do with us. Fate has singled us out. You and me. It's that specialness that makes us shiver.
We all do this, especially if we want to like each other. We frisk each other for links. We're like synchronized swimmers in search of a routine. We relish connections, and we're a highly connected species. If it were possible to map all human activity, drawing lines between friends and relatives, departures and arrivals, messages sent and received, desires and objects, you would soon have a planet-size tangle of lines, growing ever denser, with trillions of intersections.
Each intersection is an association waiting to be noticed as a coincidence, either for its own sake or when yet another intersecting line passes through it. Coincidence is commonplace. It's everywhere. But we are only aware of those intersections that are meaningful to us. Paul Kammerer, an Austrian biologist of the early nineteenth century, said that these are manifestations of a much larger cosmic unity, a force as powerful as gravity, but that acts selectively, bringing things together by affinity. We only notice its peaks, which are like the ripples on the surface of a pond.
Just what this force affecting us all might be, we don't know. Suggestions include a higher universal intelligence, gods and aliens (both mischievous and benign), a psychomagnetic field, the controlling power of our own thoughts, or a universal system of parallel universes operating in different dimensions from ours. That's easy to say, hard to understand, and impossible to prove.
Back on the ground, all that most of us are aware of when we notice a coincidence is that it provokes one of those shivers. It might be just a tremor of the imagination, but the more unlikely the coincidence, the more the sensation of invisible fingers running down the back.
Bolt-from-the-blue coincidences involving events or material objects — like bumping into a long-lost friend in a foreign town, or finding a toy in a yard sale that you once owned as a child — can move even the most skeptical in ways that are difficult to define.
What is it about coincidences that grabs at the emotions? It's the frisson of being touched by something outside of yourself. It's a sense of being chosen. One minute you are stumbling through quotidian chaos, trying to find a phone that is ringing or maneuvre a stroller up the stairs of a bus, the next you are in a lacuna of clarity, where every disparate thing — events, objects, your own thought processes — appears to be bent to the same end. For a second the suspicion that you are tiny and insignificant, and the Universe arbitrary and terrifying, disappears. You are part of a great cosmic YES!!!
Research has been done suggesting that people who notice coincidences most tend to be more confident and at ease with life. Every coincidence they experience — even the minor ones — confirms their optimism. They know that things will happen to them, that somewhere in a second-hand Tijuana bookshop there is likely to be the one remaining signed copy of their father's only novel, that in an apartment in Hong Kong, waiting to be found, very likely lives the sister they have not been told about, that the signet ring they lost in Chicago is sitting right now on the bottom of Lake Michigan awaiting the astonished angler's casual hook. They are routinely alert to coincidence, certain that at any moment, in the raffle of infinite possibilities, their lucky number will be called. For these people the world really is a smaller place.
Let's think about that book in Tijuana for a second. Let's say it was written by my father. If you came across it as you were browsing books, you wouldn't think anything of it; after all, rare bookshops are full of rare books — it's in their nature. But if I were to find that book, open it and recognize the signature of my late father, carelessly scrawled there when he was a younger man than me, with the world and all its manifold possibilities lying at his feet, the experience would be loaded with poignant significance. Just what it signified exactly, I would be hard pressed to explain, nevertheless my world would look very different from what it had looked like a few moments before. I might even have to sit down.
Laurens van der Post says in his book, Jung and the Story of Our Time (about Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who defined the concept of synchronicity), "Coincidences, instinctively, have never been idle for me, but as meaningful, I was to find, as they were to Jung. I had always had a hunch that coincidences were a manifestation of a law of life of which we are inadequately aware ... [Coincidences], in terms of our short life, are unfortunately incapable of total definition, and yet, however partial the meaning we can extract from them, we ignore them at our peril."
We know that coincidences are events, objects, and thoughts slung together by the wind — a matter of pure chance — but because they resonate so intimately we think them more than that. Who's to say, when the coincidence has a profound effect on our lives, that we are wrong? Look at what happened to the English Woman Margaret Muir.
During the Second World War when she was living in Cairo, Margaret Muir befriended a serviceman who was stationed there. It was one of those friendships that so easily could have become more, but both of them were married, so they decided that was that. After the war they only saw each other every two years, over lunch at the Guard's Club, to catch up on each other's lives. They were still attracted to each other, but now they both had families.
Fourteen years went by and lately the meetings had grown even less frequent. One day Margaret experienced a strong urge to ring her friend. She hadn't seen him for a long time, but decided it probably wasn't wise. So she occupied herself with the crossword in the paper instead. The desire to telephone her friend didn't leave her though.
One of the first clues she solved was "Where a tree and a metal will meet." The answer was ASHORE. This made her pause: her friend's name was Ash. She reached for the telephone, but once again she resisted the urge.
A subsequent clue was an anagram of the word ashore: "Vocally sick, anagram of six across." As she hit on the answer — HOARSE — the desire to telephone her friend became irresistible. She picked up the phone and dialed his office. His secretary answered. "I'm sorry but Mr. Ash died two years ago."
Margaret was shattered by the news, but needing to know more she dialled the number of a mutual acquaintance. "Yes," they said. "We should have told you. He had cancer of the throat. Before he died he got hoarser and hoarser."
Margaret found the experience astonishing, as well she might. She's a rational woman and she still doesn't know how to explain it. "It continues to baffle me in my seventies," she says.
A skeptic would deny the significance of Margaret's crossword experience. He would say it was pure chance that the clues that day related to something in her life. He would say that she had selected, out of thousands of possible elements affecting her life at the time, the two that echoed an idea that was clearly absorbing her. What about the other crossword clues — what did they have to say on the matter of her friend? What if she had decided to do the bridge puzzle instead? Would that have spoken to her as well?
The skeptic may be right, but he can't deny the power of the experience. And anyway, he's missing the point. Margaret's crossword coincidence may not have been meant, in the sense that someone or something had orchestrated it, but it was certainly meaningful. It resulted in her finding out about her friend's death for one, and it made her feel connected to him, despite the separating barriers of time and distance.
Here's another curious fact: the coincidence is meaningful to the reader as well. The reason we respond positively to accounts of coincidence, ever eager to give them the benefit of the doubt, is because they make such good stories. They have the resonance of myth and fairy tale, with their dramatic shifts of fortune, their spectacular life-and-death events and their many enchanted objects and preoccupations: crossword clues, rings, keys, addresses, numbers, and dates. There is a ritualistic quality to them because of their complex storylines: the histories, character traits, dream and thought processes that have to be established and explained in the correct sequence before the coincidence climax can be appreciated. A good coincidence story has the gravitas of Greek drama, the difference being that it is true.
We, the authors of this book, have been acutely aware of this quality while writing it. So we have not skimped on stories. There are almost two hundred in part 2 and others scattered through the book. Some are old classics that wouldn't let us leave them out (and which, like myths, thrive on the retelling); many are told here for the first time.
Carl Jung called coincidences "acts of creation in time." The sheer potency of the stories, and the emotional catharses and transformations they wrought in some of their subjects, testify to that.
All writers have a working arrangement with coincidence. Few novelists are too proud to insert a dramatic coincidence in order to tart up a lackluster plot. Without coincidence comedy routines would be deadly serious. Allegory and metaphor work by linking together two normally unconnected ideas in order to startle the reader into seeing something they thought they knew in a different light. When the poet Stephen Spender describes electricity pylons crossing a valley as "bare like nude, giant girls that have no secrets" he is utilizing the visual energy of something entirely unrelated to pylons in order to shock the reader into a sense of blatant and gauche vulgarity. Strictly speaking metaphors aren't coincidences, as they are man-made, but they work the same trick: fusing unrelated entities to power a revelation.
An interviewer once asked the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer how he could possibly work in such an untidy study. The interviewer had never seen such a cramped and confusing place. Every ledge in the room was taken up with teetering stacks of paper and books piled up on top of each other. It was perfect, said Singer. Whenever he needed inspiration, a pile of papers would fall off a shelf and something would float to the floor that would give him an idea.
There is one kind of coincidence for which all writers have a healthy respect. It manifests itself when you are researching a subject and relevant facts appear everywhere you look. Carl Jung called it the Library Angel and grateful writers leave offerings to it by their bookshelves at night.
When Martin Plimmer was researching this book, he started looking for information about neutrinos — particles so small scientists have never seen them. He was interested in ways we might connect, not just with each other, but also with the physical world and the universe beyond. Neutrinos, which originate in stars and shower the Earth constantly, seemed to suggest a medium for universal intimacy, as they pass right through us, and then through the Earth beneath us, without stopping for the lights, flitting through the empty space in atoms as though there were nothing there. Martin had never heard of neutrinos, but pretty soon the air was thick with them.
He opened a newspaper at random and there was a story about neutrino research. A novel he was reading offered an interesting neutrino theory. When he turned on the television, there was former president Bill Clinton talking about them in a speech. When he looked down at his fingertip, a billion of them were passing through it every second. Funny how he'd never noticed them before. It was as though the whole world had gone neutrino flavor.
Again, you could say that all this stuff is always out there waiting to be noticed, part of the barrage of information that passes before our overloaded senses every day. Our attention is selective; we see only what preoccupies us at the time. That week neutrinos were big, so neutrinos were everywhere. The world appeared to be bent to Martin's current obsession, and the search engine of the gods was suggesting ideas, links, and information.
None of this theory about the barrage effect of information applied to novelist and historian Dame Rebecca West when she was searching for a single entry in the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials. She had gone to the library and was horrified to discover hundreds of volumes of material. Worse, they were not indexed in a way that enabled her to look up her item. After hours leafing through them in vain, she explained her desperation to a passing librarian.
"I can't find it," she said. "There's no clue." In exasperation she pulled a volume down from the shelf. "It could be in any of these." She opened the book and there was the passage she needed.
It would be nice to think that something less fickle than chance was at work here. Did the item want to be found? Did her mind, with the right concentration of energy, read which volume it was in? Or did the Library Angel lend her a helping hand? Whatever helped her, it distributes its blessings impartially: for Rebecca West, a session transcript out of thousands from a trial of mass murderers; for a devout Muslim fisherman in Zanzibar eager for evidence of God's greatness, a fish with the old Arabic words "There is no God but Allah" discernible in the patterning on its tail.
If coincidences cluster around preoccupations, imagine how they fall over to please you when the subject is coincidence itself. This book's origins lie in a five-part series, Beyond Coincidence, made by Test-bed Productions for BBC Radio 4. No sooner had we started our research than so many coincidences happened around us that we began to feel like we were being stalked. Newspapers fell open at accounts of coincidences, potential contributors, at the moment we rang them, were interrupted in the act of writing about coincidence (or so they told us, but then they were in the coincidence business, too).
On the way back one day after interviewing a woman who was doing psychic research, we pulled off the road for lunch. Suddenly Martin began talking about the design of a car he had seen. This was unusual because, uniquely among men, Martin is not interested in cars. Normally he can't differentiate one model from another; he can barely remember the make of his own. This time he'd been so struck by the car he'd made a mental note of the make. It was an Audi.
"And if you could afford to buy one of those cars," said Brian, "would you like to own one?"
"Well, yes," said Martin, considering a novel idea. "I think I would."
"Then I know just the place you should go," said Brian, and he pointed through the window behind Martin's back. Across the road was a car showroom called Martin's Audis.
Early on in the research process Martin read Arthur Koestler's famous 1972 book, The Roots of Coincidence. First he poured himself a hot bath. It happened that at that time he was sorting out old vinyl records that he hadn't played for years. He'd been systematically playing these records to see if they were worth keeping or not. At the point when he settled into the bath with Mr. Koestler, Mickey Jupp, a little-known artist from England, started singing in the background.
There was Martin, out of his depth in scientific experiments into paranormal phenomena, specifically to test whether there is such a thing as telepathy. Early research was carried out in Russia by a scientist called Bechterer, who, afraid the authorities might consider his work too frivolous, disguised the telepathy part by calling it "biological radio." No sooner had Martin read that phrase than in the other room Mickey Jupp sang the words "nature's radio." It was a song about telepathy between lovers: "You won't have to tell me, because I'll already know / I'll have heard the news on Nature's Radio."
Excerpted from Beyond Coincidence by Martin Plimmer, Brian King. Copyright © 2006 Martin Plimmer and Brian King. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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