~ dedicated to the memory of Dev Hathaway
I can be a bit particular in my usage of certain terms. Recently my research has drawn me back to the subject of synchronicity, the mention of which often causes undue confusion. There are reasons why I use the words coincidence, serendipity, and synchronicity in very specific ways.
A bit of logic should silence all arguments: Yes, all synchronicities are coincidences, but not all coincidences are synchronicities. Strictly speaking, any two things that happen concurrently form a coincidence, whether it carries any special meaning or not. Serendipity is a step up – more like a lucky coincidence, but not out of the realm of everyday possibility.
By contrast, synchronicity is that rare coincidence that punctuates – with an exclamation point – a deeply meaningful coincidence, one that is so astonishingly rare as to be nearly unbelievable. And, to satisfy its critics, the synchronicity’s extraordinary significance must be clearly and immediately undeniable.
Synchronicity has been acknowledged to happen more frequently during events or times in our lives that are accompanied by profound insight, change, or discovery – events such as falling in love or ending a relationship, experiencing cascading epiphanies, or, perhaps, inviting contact from “other intelligence.”
To explain, I’ll have to go back in time about fifteen years. One of my most esteemed English professors, the late Dev Hathaway, told me that my writing reminded him of Annie Dillard’s. Coincidentally, Dev was an acquaintance of Dillard’s sister. I remember the smile in his eyes as he mentioned I even looked a bit like her. He advised me to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
That same afternoon I was browsing quantum mechanics or some such topic at the university library. Most of the books were relatively new – many in paperback, and all of them looking fairly standard for the subect matter. As I scanned the shelves, my eyes were drawn to one book that seemed somehow out of place: a dark, fabric-covered hardback with a faint, copper-hued title. I leaned in and, still unable to read the worn lettering in the dim light, pulled the book out: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
In a library housing hundreds of thousands of volumes, how is it that my eyes landed on the same book Dev mentioned just moments earlier – and why?
Later that week I chanced upon a paperback copy of said book, marked down to some unreasonably low price at a bookstore’s closeout sale, and I was able to add the book to my collection. Now, that I was at the bookstore at the same time as the book was a coincidence – and it was serendipitous that I happened to spot it while quickly rummaging through boatloads of others, especially since I had just learned about it.
Looking back on those days, when I was finishing college in my late 20s, everything in my life was at an intense high. I was experiencing some profound interactions with what might be called the subtle realm. Once I was sunbathing in the back yard – a lush, overgrown, and private area – observing nature. As I watched a dragonfly dart around the bushes and trees and Queen Anne’s Lace, I thought to it, “Come and sit nearby.” To my delight, the dragonfly immediately came over and landed very close, facing me with a steady gaze for several seconds while I perceived, with joyful gratitude, its gossamer wings and velvety eyes.
Back to the library, though, and to synchronicity. At the top of my list of “all-time wildest synchronicities” has to be the following. I was in an “Intro to the Internet” class in the mid-1990s when a book was passed around containing the e-mail addresses of a hundred or so relatively well-known people. My assignment was to e-mail one of them and then report back on the result. I flipped through the book and found a name that was quite familiar, although I didn’t know much about him: Noam Chomsky.
Later that day I was, again, in the university library. This time I was deliberately looking in the bound periodicals section for a particular back issue of Esquire magazine, to read an interview with Dr. John Mack about the alien encounter phenomenon.
As I walked past the bookshelves, alphabetically approching Esquire, coincidentally I saw a section of bound volumes of a periodical called “Encounter.” I’d never heard of this publication, but I couldn’t resist stopping to take a quick look at one of the books. I chose one at random, with dates like Sept. 1971 – May 1973. I quickly flipped it open to a densely-packed page and immediately saw two words: “Noam Chomsky.”
So as I stood in a library of a million or so books with many more hundreds of millions of words mixed up in mostly-random order, I had chosen the right book, the only page in that book, and the exact place on that page to find the words that I had chosen earlier that day. Something was pulling me toward that book – or vice versa. Now that I would call a synchronicity.
Could a “conscious” factor in the book have sensed me walking by, and called me in?
Noam Chomsky – a linguist – ended up having a connection to an overwhelming interest of mine, crop circles, and specifically, to the meaning that they might convey. Nice conversation starter, eh? “Mr Chomsky, what do you think about the language of the crop circles in the fields of rural England?”
But to reframe: simple coincidences are not necessarily less valuable than astonishing synchronicities. Remember, Dev’s coincidental acquaintance with Annie Dillard was closely connected to the synchronicity of finding Pilgrim at Tinker Creek later that day. In fact, there was a similar chain of events in the Noam Chomsky synchronicity, only in a much tighter time frame: first, the coincidence of walking past a periodical named “Encounter,” which clearly grabbed my attention, and second, the synchronicity of my eyes landing on the words “Noam Chomsky” when I opened a volume at random.
I believe that the magnitude of a particular synchronicity’s meaning is inversely correlated to the odds of the coincidence. Doubtless, these events – especially the ones of least probability by chance – support the reality of a pervasive, yet obscure consciousness which I feel is omnipresent in the Cosmos – by whatever name it be called, whether quanta or God or something else entirely.
To paraphrase Heraclitus, who noted so long ago with riddling insight, the Cosmos “…neither declares nor conceals, but gives a sign.”