There is no universal recipe for living.
Carl Jung, p. 300 D. Bair
I was feeling very burned out. My classes had been demanding. I was working on three research projects and none of them were going as planned and I was plagued with setbacks and frustrations. I needed some time off. For a long time I had wanted to climb Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii. There is a bleak lonely trail that winds up the side through lifeless tracks of lava flows from various eruptions that had occurred over the last century. Such a stark landscape sounded like just what I needed to get away from everything. It was a five-day back-pack and I wondered if I could really afford the time and energy to do this. I was very conflicted. On the one hand I was going to be teaching Ecology in the Spring Term and really had a lot to do to get ready for the class. I also had some research projects that demanded my attention as well as a master student who was finishing up and needed my assistance. On the other hand, I had meetings in Hawaii and if I went early I could do the backpacking trip. Prayer yielded neither yea or nay. A heavenly shrug,—Whatever–if you will. I wanted to talk it over with my wife so we met at a Chinese restaurant to talk about it. I went over all my reasons for wanting to go, and all the reasons I could not go. She smiled and said unhelpfully, “I’ll support you in what ever you decide.” I felt very frustrated and conflicted. Nothing seemed clear. Should I go or not? Ack. How do you decide? The meal was ending and we pulled out our fortune cookies: This is what my first one said”
“You are Heading for a Land of Sunshine and Relaxation.”
My wife and I both laughed. I opened the second one it said:
“You will Take a Pleasant Journey to a Far-Away Place.”
Who could argue with fate? I decided to go.
What happened here? Did the Universe want me to go to Hawaii? Were there mysterious forces at work leading me to my karmic destiny? Why when reading these two fortunes from a cookie did I make the decision to go backpacking? Shouldn’t the rationalist be horrified to discover that I did not come to a decision through logic and contemplation? The more spiritual, chagrined that it had not come though inspiration?
Rationality had left me cold in trying to decide which course to take. There were powerful brain modules that wanted me to go backpacking. There were also powerful subroutines that did not want me to go. So rationality was stuck. What about emotions? There were powerful emotions on both sides of the questions. Part of me felt very burned out and in need of rest. Part of me wanted to continue in moving forward my goals and desires for professional advancement. I was deadlocked. In point of fact I was confused. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I needed to peer more deeply into myself to find the answer. The fortune cookie allowed me to do that. A meaningful coincidence allowed me to move forward. Why? From our perspective the universe is a place filled with random, stochastic events. When we flip a coin, whether it returns head or tails is a random event. We can’t predict it. That’s why we let it arbitrate to start a football game. We know that it will decide who gets to kickoff in a way that neither team can influence or predict. Random events, however, are happening all around us all the time. Next time you go to the mall and park. Look at the car parked next to yours. When those cars were fresh off their respective assembly lines, do you have any idea how low the probability was that eventually those cars would end up parked next to each other on that day? The event of your parking next to each other is conditioned on thousands of very low probability events. What was the probability that the cars would go to the same city? What was the probability of the cars being driven on the same day? Of going to the mall? Of being there at the same time? What’s the probability of ending up in that stall? At the individual cars manufacture the probability that those cars would be parked together on that day is so vanishingly small that it rates in the trillions of trillions to one. Yet it happened. The point here is that very low probability events are going on around you all the time. You are surrounded by them. They weave in and out of life thickly. In fact, if I can be glib, the probability of your being involved in what could be considered from some perspective an almost probabilistically impossible event is a sure bet. In other words coincidences happen all the time. Everyday life is blanketed with coincidences and low probability events. Coincidence happens. However, most of the time we don’t notice. Its when we do that things get interesting.
Interestingly, I often see people reading meaning into coincidence. I see randomness taken as what is ‘meant to be.’ How can I rationally justify letting a fortune cookie decide such an important decision? Have you ever had this happen to you? How do we tell blatant coincidence from divine direction? And what does it mean when we find significance in coincidence? What does this tell us about ourselves? What are its dangers? Its strengths?