The Accidental Backpacker

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?


  1. Who can argue with a fortune cookie?

  2. Two of them no less…..

  3. Steven, interesting thoughts. I wonder to what extent your discussion of probabilities is tied to the issue of an interventionist God, and I am not sure that we can look at external circumstances as evidence either way. Personally, I believe that the most relevant form of divine direction is that which affects our relationship with God; that is, direction which tends to increase the role of the Atonement in our lives. One can choose to see such direction in everything, or one can limit the permitted jurisdiction of such inspiration/intervention — it would seem to be almost completely a matter of personal preference.

    But then, there are exceptions…

  4. Steven, I met my wife as a teenager – exactly when she needed me and after a series of retrospectively coincidental events that covered over a year. When we met, it was like picking back up with your best friend from whom you’ve been separated for a long time. It was the ancient concept of split-aparts – and I could not have met her in any other way.

    That isn’t hyperbole. In looking back on my life and hers, if we had not met that week in that way, it would have required direct and specific revelation for us to meet. God literally would have had to appear to one of us and say, “Go to this specific place at this specific time and wait for this specific thing to occur” – like waiting for a woman at a well to offer a drink for myself and my camels. Without our association, I would not have met ANYONE who knew her, and she would not have met ANYONE who knew me. We would have attended different colleges thousands of miles apart. We never would have met if it hadn’t happened exactly as it did.

    I have no idea what things are coincidences and what things aren’t on a daily basis. I understand the potential issues in viewing all things as coincidence or nothing that way. I just know, deep down inside myself, that some of the things that would be described as coincidence in my life by others were not.

  5. Btw, I forgot to say, this is a wonderful post. I look forward to reading more analytical responses.

  6. Sounds like fortune cookies like you a lot more than me–my fortunes are in the habit of mocking me. For example, the fortune cookie I opened the day after getting in a car accident: “your place in life is behind the driver’s seat.” The day after I got my report card from my first semester in law school: “your principles mean more to you than money or success.”

  7. Peter LLC says:

    Who could argue with fate? I decided to go.

    You have chosen wisely.

  8. Thomas Parkin says:

    I want to create a brand of fortune cookies with fortunes that say things like ‘They’re on to you’ or ‘Bad things happen to good people.’ Mixed in with happier fortunes. I mean, make opening that cookie a bit more of an event.

    My all time favorite fortune cookie said ‘one man’s onion is another man’s lotus flower.’ (In bed, my wife immediately says. Don’t even know why I remember this – but there is a restaurant in the International District in Seattle that has Plum Chicken, very tasty, and I opened that fortune after eating Plum Chicken.)

    When there seems to be intent in things, I take notice, sure. Maybe at times we’ve been set up. Maybe, also, the fact that you’re taking notice is itself an indication that your subconscious is telling you to pay attention. Who knows.


  9. I think there is a great deal of this “karmic” thinking still alive and well in the church, and I don’t think it’s a good thing for we who espouse the pursuit of truth and personal revelation. It can seem very uplifting and, dare I say, “faith promoting” when we read divine intervention into coincidence. I also met my wife under very “chance” circumstances that, looking back, almost seem like it was meant to be. I was (and still am) very glad to have met my wonderful wife under those chance circumstances. But I think if I hadn’t, there would have been other opportunities to meet a future wife that just happen as course of nature (one of the common occurences of low probability that Steven mentions). I wonder sometimes if, looking back, we sometimes connect dots that may not necessarily be related.

    The trouble I have with this view is that this must also mean that such intervention in life events is somewhat arbitrary, which I have a harder time with. For example,when misfortune happens (e.g. the unexpected death of a child)then the tendency is to see it as either God meting out punishment, or at best, causing an unbearable trial to increase your faith. I don’t believe God does this to His children. This, to answer Steven’s question, is where I think the danger is in reading too much into coincidence, and in allowing our decisions to be made by what are seen as signs and omens, rather than logic and reason, at least when there is no spiritual confirmation of such.

  10. Yesterday, my fortune cookie said, “You will be aroused by a shampoo commercial.” And then, sure enough…

  11. In the mouth of two or three cookies shall every… witnesses. Two or three witnesses. Yeah.

  12. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 8 Oh my gosh, some friends and I had the same idea for dark fortune cookies but ours were going to be even worse. “There’s chemo in your future.” “Nobody really likes you.” etc.

    Pet peeve: Fortune cookies that contain proverbs instead of fortunes. Anybody else ever notice those? You know, ones like “A wise man measures his words” or some such. I don’t one advice after my moo-shoo chicken, I want a prediction.

    Many years ago in my first long dating relationship, at some point while eating chinese I got a cookie that said “Your partner will never want to leave you.” I carried it in my wallet for a long time. He left me.

    So much for that.

  13. Re: #8 Thomas – There are several companies that will insert fortunes of your own writting in to fortune cookie. My wife did this for a sales promotion with coupons for 10-30% off on her business (custom drapes). It is pretty inexpensive. I won’t post a link since there are so many.

    Sounds like your wife was playing the game of putting “in bed” after every fortune cookie saying. I know it may be sacrilege but it works for hymn titles too.

    And just to keep on topic….In order for us to maintain our agency, God’s intervention must have plausible deniability. Think of Douglas Adams and the Babel fish.

  14. the night before my mission farewell (Chinese-speaking, of course), I went out to Chinese food with my family.

    my fortune cookie said, “talk less about what you’re about to do, you’ll get more done”

    i was tempted to give that one-sentence as my farewell address.

  15. About a month ago I had a fortune cookie say “You will find new adventure with a mysterious blonde.”

    This was followed with another fortune that read “Look forward to big change in your life.”

    My wife is brunette. She didn’t like those fortunes.I recognized that if I looked forward to fortune 1, fortune 2 would be inevitible.

  16. Latter-day Guy says:

    Re: 8, 13,

    It’s more fun if you say “except in bed” at the end… and I don’t think that’s coincidence.

  17. Just think of where we could be if Joseph Smith had a basket full of fortune cookies

  18. I read a great short story in an old Sunstone a few years ago about a guy who got a job writing fortune cookies. His fortunes were things like “Your sunglasses are under the front seat of your wife’s car,” and they were always accurate.

    People hated them, so he got fired.

  19. I too met my wife though “coincidence”. But I don’t think we “picked” each other by fate. That, I think, came from our life expediences and values.

    If you have a total ‘deadlock’ in your mind. flip a coin, before it hits the ground, you will know what you want to do.

    Final thought: I have many years of blog reading left. (sorry guys), But my many years of backpacking…are over.

  20. My pet peeve are advice cookies that are masquerading as fortune cookies.

    The only fortune I’ve ever kept is taped in an old journal and it says:

    You will overcome many hardships.

  21. #9 – “I think the danger is in reading too much into coincidence, and in allowing our decisions to be made by what are seen as signs and omens, rather than logic and reason, at least when there is no spiritual confirmation of such.”

    I agree completely with that, Matt. Every case of “recognizing the string of coincidences” in my life has come in retrospect. If we start looking for signs and omens and start making decisions based on them . . . yeah, I think we are on very shaky ground.

    Also, I have said more than once that, despite my experience meeting my wife, I do NOT believe we were “destined” to marry. I really do believe we were led to each other, but I also believe it was up to us to decide how to act after that meeting. If we had chosen, in whatever way, to not make it work, I have no doubt that each of us would have met someone else with whom we could have been happy. I just know that she needed ME when we met – not just someone, but ME.

    Also, in looking back, I am struck forcefully by the decisions we each made that put us there that make absolutely no sense without that outcome. I can’t explain it fully here, but I made some decisions that literally did not fit my nature, made no sense to me at the time (and I was not one to do things I did not understand at that time) and (literally) I was not able to explain to my father when he asked – and he did ask. Getting there took decisions that were unexplainable at the time, and I simply can’t explain them even now in any other way than to say that something more was happening than just random coincidence.

    Maybe it boils down to spiritual impressions that didn’t seem spiritual at the time. I do believe there is a power and inter-connectivity of the spirit that can become so embedded in us that we end up taking it for granted and thinking many of our thoughts and feelings are ours alone. Maybe it really was just the randomness of the universe, but I choose not to view it that way.

  22. Sorry to threadjack such a funny conversation about fortune cookies. I’m enjoying that discussion.

  23. I hesitate whether to post this or not… however I feel prompted to do so.

    Something awesome happened to me 18 years ago which changed my life.
    For years following, I tried to experience this again, to no avail.
    After two extended efforts over two years (not sequential), I recorded in my audio journal about the situation.
    The 2nd attempt I noticed some interesting coincidences that I thought could not be chance.

    When I went home after the second vain attempt, and prayed about it, something told me to view the dates/times or the occurrences… and they matched up exactly.

    Sorry for all the vague references here, but might point is, that over a span of 15 years, on three separate years, on the exact same day of the year, something happened… and then I recorded a journal entry about it (not intentional).

    This has forever changed my opinion of fate and how God works in our lives… my feeling now is that, once you consciously hand your life over to God, or hand your free will over to Him, that he IS interventionist.

    Does that make sense?

  24. No.

  25. I believe in a randomly-interventionist God. I have been chagrined to hear people equate coincidence a little too often with with divine guidance. On the other hand, we are counseled to look for the hand of God in all aspects of our lives, and I have been the beneficiary of what appear to be random coincidences that in retrospect do seem to be serving a divine purpose.

    Sometimes, very small and insignificant things that get lost in the background clutter of our lives do take on more significance over time and with the perspective of some personal distance. Think of some of the conversion stories that we have heard involving coincidental contact with the BoM. I once laughed when a former SP said that often the fulfillment of prophecy can only be seen after it happens. I thought, “well, Duh!”. But given some distance from that statement, I think there is some validity to it. Just don’t overdo it, though. Sometimes, stuff happens.

  26. J. Nelson.
    THAT was funny.
    Sorry, but I am prohibited from clarification.
    Your red star explanation isn’t clear either! :)

  27. Steven P says:

    These problems with finding meaning really vex me. The trouble with retrospecting meaning is that it seems like any event is a long string of coincidences. I was thinking as I dried myself off with my towel this morning that if my wife had not been at Target to pick up diet Coke that day, and if the towels had not been on sale, and if it had not been that she found the towel matching the way she had recently painted it, and if the manufacture had chosen to make different color towels, me and this towel would have never come together. The trouble is we only trace the coincidences when that take on extraordinary meaning later. In meeting my wife I can find the same sorts of long chain coincidences that brought us together that others have, I almost didn’t go to the snow party where we met but I finished my math homework more quickly than I expected, a couple of days before I had stepped out on my balcony at Campus Plaza and saw her walk by and made a mental note to get to know her, We happened to get in the same care going up to the party, etc. etc. But such events were true of lots of people I didn’t marry. It’s only because she became my wife that I bother to look at all the things that came together for us to marry.

    One final note: On our honeymoon driving back through Oregon to BYU. We debated whether to stop at Burger King for Lunch. We want back and forth and on a dime’s breadth decided to go on. That decision changed everything about our lives. Twenty minutes later we had a head on collision with a drunk driver that we only just barely survived. The first people on the scene were a couple of EMT’s that had taken the day off to go fishing and had at the last moment thrown their EMT kit into the trunk. We would have died without their presence at that moment. (For a long time why couldn’t God have just had us stop for lunch? Sheesh his ways are not our ways.) Coincidence? Direction? I haven’t a clue. Lot’s of people do die in such things. They just don’t get to look back and tell the story of what saved them.

  28. Steven P, I also know of dozens of stories like yours, including a few that have happened to me as well.

    If I was a true believer in seeing everything in significant terms, that would have included my wife’s boyfriend getting killed in Vietnam, so that she would marry me. In fact, I did carry the guilt about that around for a while, and eventually dealt with it as truly just coincidence. My wife, I’m not sure she’s as convinced.

    Randomly-interventionist is the best description that I can come up with. Sometimes, we can really be amazed at what transpires, but on the other hand, much of life really does become a “deal with it and move on” proposition. Sometimes God does intervene, sometimes he doesn’t, and we aren’t always able to tell when either happens. But there are enough times it has happened that I can cling to a faith in a loving and caring Heavenly Father, and get me through the many times that we have to go your fortune cookie route.

    Or as the Rolling Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need”.

  29. I have had a lot of issues with so called “Fortune Cookies” that are not Fortune Cookies… I call them Statement Cookies…
    I now have a list of cookies:
    1. Fortune Cookies
    2. Statement Cookies
    3. Proverb Cookies
    4. Advice Cookies

    On another note I would love to see a blog about strange ways of meeting your wife/ husband.
    There are too many vague stories in this post that I would love to hear the WHOLE story for each person!

  30. So, wait! Fortune cookies are all well and good (and, actually, kinda yummy), but how did the hike go? Or is it still in the future? Do you have pictures?

    Come on, people, focus–the man’s talking about VOLCANOES here.

  31. The problem with the post is that you are placing to much importance on the decision of whether to go on this hike. Go, don’t go, it’s just not that big of a deal.

    But I will say this: if you have the opportunity to go on a hike like that and you don’t take it, you deserve all the drudgery you get.

  32. Coincidently, this quote from Elder Richard G. Scott is part of the VT message for June:

    “… You were taught and prepared for the circumstances you would personally encounter in mortality. … Your memory of premortal life would be kept from you to assure that it would be a valid test, but there would be guidance given to show you how to live. Our Father’s plan for salvation in this life with the opportunity of returning to Him would be called the gospel of Jesus Christ” (“Truth Restored,” Liahona and Ensign, Nov. 2005, 78–79

    Now I doubt the guidance is supposed to take the form of fortune cookies, but might it be more than the gospel alone?

  33. This is way late, but I once had a fortune cookie that read “You will have good fortune.” I don’t even think it came true.