Bump into a friend in an unlikely place, and you might say, “Wow, what a great coincidence!” This is usually how we use the term coincidence.
Sometimes, however, coincidence can move beyond that normal experience—into the realm of wonder, surprise, and mystery.
When that happens, coincidence can be used as a guide to a meaningful life.
Let me explain.
Meaning of Coincidence
Look up the dictionary definition, and you’ll see that coincidence requires three ingredients: a collision of events, happening at the same time, and having some mysterious connection. For example, here’s how Merriam-Webster defines coincidence:
“the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection”
When coincidence becomes meaningful (examples to follow), then it becomes a special kind of coincidence called synchronicity, as Carl Jung put it. Today, I use coincidence and synchronicity as synonyms, but technically there is a difference between them.
Why Coincidence Happens
Objectively speaking, coincidence happens because of simple mathematics. The birthday problem illustrates this clearly. How many people do you need in a room before a pair of them will have the same birthday? The answer is surprising: only 23 people. So coincidence can be explained, and really there is no mystery to it.
Subjectively speaking however, coincidence can feel magical and mysterious, and I prefer the mystery. It’s not about living in a delusional way. It’s about living with a sense of play. We can exist in that in-between state—where the rational grounds us at the same time that coincidences lift us up. This coincidence quote sums up my perspective very well:
It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences … but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
Coincidence Examples in One Man’s Life
Why do I write passionately about coincidence? It’s because it has affected my life in many ways.
Coincidence Could be Life-Changing
I used to sing in a choir. One Saturday night in October 1998, my choir performed at a community center in downtown Toronto. After the performance, while walking to the subway to head home, I bumped into a work colleague on the street. He was going to a bachelorette dinner party. Would I want to join them? I said sure, why not.
Coincidentally, another man in another part of Toronto was out with a friend who suddenly had to bail on their evening plans. Wondering what to do next, this man bumped into a friend on the street. This friend was going to a bachelorette dinner party. Would he like to join them?
That’s how my partner and I met 21 years ago. It was by chance.
What is the probability of this string of events happening that same night? It can be calculated. It’s all very rational. At the same time though, what stays with me is the mystery of that first meeting.
Coincidence Could also be Small
The significance of a coincidence doesn’t have to be Big with a capital “B.” Take the new cyanotype print illustrating this post for example. It was inspired by a coincidence.
The US Supreme Court decided this past Monday that it is illegal to fire someone simply because they are gay or transgender. A conservative judge even wrote the majority opinion! This win is a spot of hope in the middle of coronavirus, police brutality, and systemic racism in the USA today.
I wanted to celebrate this Supreme Court decision with a new image for the series, The Unseen. “But what could this image be?” I thought to myself that Monday morning.
That night, I stumbled into the movie Big Eden on Amazon Prime. One scene in the movie stuck with me: a character had a leaf caught in his hair. The following night, I stumbled upon the sci-fi series Upload whose main character was having a bad hair day in the first episode. The next day, my mom commented through Facetime that my hair was growing too long and that I should give myself a haircut.
That was an awful lot of coincidences about hair in the span of a few days!
So what did I do?
I took these coincidences to mean that I had to create an image involving hair to commemorate the Supreme Court decision. Laurel wreaths symbolized victory in ancient Greece. This image just felt right.
Coincidences don’t have to be monumental, they could just be fun. Coincidence can be an input to creativity.
But Always: Coincidence Feels Mysterious
On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, at 4:02 pm, I was brainstorming blog topics to write about. I’d been struggling with the direction of this blog (and still do!). At the very moment I was thinking of this issue, my email dinged with a new message. It was a Joseph Campbell Foundation newsletter entitled “Following My Bliss.”
I was so shocked by this coincidence that I had to screenshot it in my Evernote journal. Was coincidence giving me a sign? Should I just follow my bliss? It certainly felt like a message at the time.
It gets better. I actually forgot about this incident until I started writing this article! I was searching for coincidence stories to share, and this Evernote journal entry popped up in my search. Just a few weeks ago (May 2020), I had this “new” idea that maybe my blog should be about me implementing “follow your bliss” so that I can help and inspire others to do the same. Was finding this old journal entry some confirmation that I’m on the right path? Cue mysterious music…
How To Work With Coincidence
Keep A Journal
In How to Follow Your Bliss, I suggest listening to your inner voice and writing down what it says in a journal (electronic or paper, it doesn’t matter). Do the same with coincidences. Log them—no matter how large or small they appear to be at the time. You will forget it just as I did. I keep electronic and paper journals. Here is a snapshot of my paper journal where I summarize synchronicities and coincidences. The last entry on this page is the hair coincidence I shared above.
Your journals are precious gifts for your future self. Re-discovering your notes many months and years later will be a comfort, especially in dark times such as now.
The journal could take any form you like. Don’t be bound by customary notions of productivity journals, diaries, or planners. Your journal can be a phone app or a small blank notebook. I prefer a phone app like Evernote, Google Keep, or TiddlyWiki so that it’s always with you and searchable. I will write more about journals in an upcoming post. Subscribe to my blog so that you don’t miss it.
Feel, Don’t Think
What coincidences should you record in your journal? My main test is one of surprise. If I’m surprised by a coincidence, then I write it down. In other words, open yourself to feeling surprise, wonder, delight, or their antonyms. Don’t think. We already know the rational mathematical reasons. Just write the coincidence down. You don’t need to do anything else. Not all coincidences need action right now. Maybe they will matter later.
Adopt an Open Mindset
To enjoy movies and literature, you have to suspend your disbelief. Do this with coincidence too. When you adopt a playful and open mindset, the following advice from a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist begins to make sense:
If you want meaningful coincidence to change the story of your life, wander the world randomly and be willing to listen to whatever life presents. This last part, “be willing to listen to whatever life presents” is, I think, quite a good piece of advice when confronted with the random event that confounds our plans or shows us something other than what we expected. The unanticipated turn of events we are faced with might well be a turning point of a story we had not yet realized we were a character in.
Can you Make a Coincidence Happen?
The quote above suggests yes. The more you wander the world randomly, the more you increase the probability that something will occur. That’s just mathematics. During the pandemic, we, unfortunately, can’t go out in the world and literally wander around. However, we can still do this with books, movies, or the news. Even social media would be good here. The list is endless.
Again, the coincidence doesn’t have to be big. For example, if a Facebook friend mentions a book, then you encounter the same book while reading the news, and then an acquaintance mentions the same book, I think it would be fun to at least check out this book! Or say every time you see a color, you comment how much you like it. Several days later you decide that maybe your bathroom needs a new coat of paint…Well, you get the picture.
Journal Your Way to a Meaningful Life
Tracking coincidences is a long-term project. If we keep at this endeavor, over time, I expect that you and I will be able to formulate why we’re here in the first place and what it all meant (even just to ourselves). We will be able to finally connect the dots. Isn’t that what a meaningful life is—when you understand the connections between where you started and how you got to the end of your story? I think so.
What can you do to start today?