Just a Coincidence?

I was walking down the street thinking about a friend I hadn’t seen for some time, and when I looked up, there he was, standing at the corner with his wife. He was looking at me in some surprise, for it turned out they had been speaking of me in the same moment that I had been thinking of him. We congratulated ourselves on arriving there at just the right moment for these facts to be revealed to us. We talked for a while, as there were many things we had been meaning to discuss with each other, and when we parted I had the happy sense that the substance of my day had been revealed.

Only later did I recall that none of us had referred to our fortunate meeting as a coincidence, which is what it was, of course. But coincidence is a word that we have learned to distrust, a mildly derogative term used by parents, teachers, and other grown-ups to dismiss the marvelous. “Only a coincidence” is the way they usually put it, as if to say that meaning and significance lie not in the coincidental, but elsewhere, in a more real world shaped by an iron law of cause and effect. What no one ever points out is that a coincidence has to be perceived in order to exist, and thus is a function of our way of looking at the world. If my friend and I had not seen each other, there would have been no such event. This is perhaps the thing about coincidence that troubles the rationally minded, who tend to believe an event has to be an event whether or not anyone actually witnesses it.

On another day I had been trying to write a story about the British Israelites, a Protestant sect whose followers were convinced that Anglo-Saxons were the lost tribes of Israel, and I had developed the uneasy feeling that there was much about them that I would never understand. I left my desk and went for a walk along an unfamiliar stretch of Vancouver’s Kingsway Avenue and became lost in thought. When I looked up I was standing outside an aging storefront. In the window lay a map of Europe and North Africa that was marked with curved arrows showing the migrations of the same lost tribes I had been reading about as they surged up across Europe and the English Channel and then across the Atlantic.

I had stumbled onto the British-Israelite World Federation Bookstore, the proprietor of which was a red-haired man with a beard who was pleased to fill me in on the present state of the movement. For two dollars, I bought a pamphlet based on a speech delivered in the Oak Room of the Hotel Vancouver in 1932 that professed to explain the Jewish origins of the Japanese people and the Shinto religion, and as I walked home with my souvenir I felt as if I were returning from a dream. Coincidences are the glue of dreams, and that dreamlike quality may be what makes it so difficult for rational minds to account for them.

In moments of coincidence the world seems to be mocking us, however gently, which may be one reason we’re inclined to dismiss them. Not long ago on the radio I heard a man brush off a rather wonderful coincidence in his life as being but the product of “random chance.” What about nonrandom chance? Is there a world of intended occurrence?

Three of the four dictionaries within my reach define coincidence as an event “apparently accidental,” happening “without apparent causal connection” and “apparently by mere chance.” The fourth is even more skittish, defining it as “an event that might have been arranged although it was really accidental.” Coincidence invokes the specter of cause and effect, a set of rules we’re now less sure of, thanks to modern, non-Newtonian physics. It reminds us of the photon–the tiniest packet of light–which can exist as either a wave or a particle, depending on how you look at it. Here we approach the heart of the matter: Coincidence may in fact be a flaw in the tangled blur of cause and effect that we see when we look out at the world. Suddenly, the world looks back at us in a moment that has no explanation, that is defined only by our perception of it. In such a moment everything is changed but nothing is different. Perhaps this is why there are few celebrations of coincidence, although coincidence informs all of our lives.

Last week I met friends from out of town in a bar and told them stories of an old mentor of mine who 25 years ago had been an important force in my life. The music in the bar had become fu-nereal, and when we asked the bartender about it he shrugged and made a joke about a funeral parlor. When I got home I picked up a six-month-old magazine from the stack in the bathroom. It fell open to an elegy written for the man I had been telling stories about, and I understood at that moment that my old mentor was no longer alive.

I lit a candle to honor the man whom I had loved but had not seen since 1986. His name was Richard Simmins, and he had been a curator and art critic before moving to the Ottawa Valley to become an antiquarian book dealer. He once gave me a 1958 Pontiac in return for a small favor; I drove it for six months and then sold it for a dollar.

That was the summer I was placing bets at the racetrack with my brother, on the advice of an astrologer who had worked out a way of predicting winners based on the positions of the planets and the timing of the starting gun. For one such day, the astrologer calculated that the first race, if it started on time, would bring in horses six and three, which, as I recall, were controlled by Mars and Mercury, and after that the following races would come in like clockwork.

My brother and I set out in the Pontiac with our charts. The car ran out of gas a few blocks from the track and we had to push it into a gas station. At the track, the parking lot was full so we parked on the street and ran to the entrance gate. We were within a few feet of the betting window when the bell rang and the race went off before we could place our bets. Mars and Mercury came in just as they were supposed to do. We then followed the counsel of our adviser and broke even in the second and third races. We could see that the system worked, but I soon found out we misunderstood how it applied to us.

The fourth race was a big one, we had been warned, and Mars and Mercury would play a part in it. My brother took our money to the wicket to bet on six and three both ways. I looked out at the track as the horses came up to the post. Among them was a white stallion, a rare sight at the races, and it carried the number four on its back. Four was the number of the moon, which according to our adviser always played a role in the fourth race. It was also an extreme long shot. I looked out to the east where the moon, nearly full, could be seen hanging in a blue sky. I said to myself, white horse, white moon, four in the fourth race, and then I said, it’s only coincidence and manfully, rationally, resisted the impulse to call my brother back.

The white stallion won the race handily, separated from the pack by six and three, who seemed to be running interference for it, and my brother and I failed to win many hundreds of dollars. Thirty years later, I read in a layman’s book on quantum mechanics that what we experience of the world is not external reality at all, but our interaction with reality.

Stephen Osbornewas born on Baffin Island in Canada’s far north in 1947, and grew up in Alberta and British Columbia. He became a presence in Vancouver’s counterculture when he founded the left-leaning Pulp Press (now Arsenal Pulp Press) there in 1971. By 1983 he had become, as he once put it, “completely a computer nerd,” developing an early form of desktop publishing and supporting himself by helping small publications computerize. A man of letters at heart, Osborne founded Geist magazine in 1990 as a forum for his own essays and a range of other notably unstuffy literary work that often explores the quirky details of ordinary lives. This essay is excerpted from Geist, Winter 2003. Subscriptions: U.S. $21/yr. (4 issues) from the Geist Foundation, #103, 1014 Homer St., Vancouver, BC, Canada V6B2W9

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