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Oedipus at the Cleft Way

Coincidences serve the narrative thrust of many stories.

The ancient Oedipus myth is sprinkled with dramatic coincidences. It was popularized by Sophocles in 429 BCE and reignited in modern times by Sigmund Freud and his Oedipus Complex.  The plot caught Oedipus and his father, Laius, in a fateful, chance encounter in a narrow passage at Daulia, Greece on the road to the Oracle at Delphi.

Oedipus was quite aware that the fates were calling for him to kill his father, Laius, and marry his mother, Jocasta.  Laius had also been told that he was to be killed by his son, who was then to marry his wife.  Both men tried desperately to avoid fulfilling the prophecy.  Because it is a myth and because it has been told many times, the details vary.  One central coincidence remains.  In a narrow passage, Oedipus meets Laius by chance or fate, each one not knowing the identity of the other. Oedipus kills Laius and 3 of his 4 companions.

The story:

After Laius, King of Thebes, married Jocasta, he was warned by the Oracle at Delphi not to have a child with her because that child would kill him and marry her. One evening Laius became drunk and fathered Oedipus with her. Fearing the oracle’s prediction, Laius ordered a servant to take the baby to a mountain and to mutilate his feet (from which the name Oedipus came meaning:  “swollen foot”). A shepherd found him but could not financially support him so he took the baby to the king and queen of Corinth. The couple raised him as their son.

Wanting to know more about his own past and future, Oedipus consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was told that he must not live with his parents. If he did, he would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing that his parents were in Corinth, he decided to go to Thebes instead.  Midway between Delphi and Thebes is the small town of Daulia. Here Oedipus met Laius at the Cleft way, narrow gap between the hills.  Laius was traveling to Delphi to consult the oracle because omens were indicating that he would soon be killed.  At the Cleft Way one party had to give way to the other. Oedipus would not yield to Laius and his men. The trigger was insults or robbery, depending upon who was telling the story. Laius struck first and Oedipus counter-attacked killing Laius and three of his four companions.

Oedipus continued on to Thebes which was being oppressed by the Sphinx, a monster with the body of a lion and the torso and head of a woman. Any traveler to Thebes had to answer a riddle or be devoured.  No one could answer the riddle so Thebes had been cut off from contact with the outside world. Its people were starving. The riddle: what walks on 4 legs in the morning, two legs during the day, and 3 legs in the evening? Oedipus knew the answer: Man.  The Sphinx disappeared and the grateful people of Thebes anointed him king. And so he married Jocasta, the queen, his mother. 

We are not told how Oedipus had come to know the answer to the riddle—another coincidence necessary to the plot. It echoes many real life coincidences in which someone just happens to know the right information to turn a problematic situation into a favorable one.

Thebes was then beset by a plague that was ruining crops and further starving its people. The reason for these problems, they are told, is that the slayer of Laius had yet not been brought to justice. Oedipus swears to find and punish the murderer. In one version of the story, the servant of Laius who left Oedipus on the mountain is the only one still alive of the men Oedipus killed at the Cleft Way. So he lived to tell the truth—another well-designed coincidence to further the thread of the story. Jocasta commits suicide. Oedipus blinds and exiles himself.

In summary, the coincidences in the Oedipus myth include:

  1. Oedipus meets Laius at the Cleft Way where only one of them can pass.
  2. Somehow Oedipus came to know the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx.
  3. Only the servant who knew how Oedipus survived was not killed by Oedipus at the Cleft Way.  So this servant lived to tell the story of the Cleft Way.

No coincidences, no plot.

Meaning in Randomness

Many people believe that coincidences are random events. Because they are random events, so the reasoning goes, coincidences cannot have meaning.

Not true.

Coincidences come into our lives with two prominent and very different kinds of meaning—usefulness and cause/explanation. Just as we use smartphones without knowing how they work, we can use coincidences without a clear explanation of how they enter our lives.  Coincidences happen. We can decide to be ready to use them and later reflect on the why. And we may not be able to find the why even if the coincidence turns out to be useful.

You also can ignore a potentially useful coincidence as the following story illustrates.

On a quiet winter day in the woods along a creek, a hiker found himself in the midst of a coincidence.

The man had been walking along the trail by the creek. He had seen only four people on his two hour walk on the trail that day. He came to a crossing made of several large rocks that continued the trail on the other side. He had never used this crossing before. Coincidentally, just as he came to this place, a family of four—mother, father, and two daughters were beginning their crossing from the other side.

He had the opportunity to observe how they navigated the rocks because it was a bit tricky. But he was annoyed at having to wait so he looked down and did not observe how the family managed the problem. He  waited, looking down, until they had reached his side.

Then he began again. He came to one large, pointed, wet rock. He carefully hopped onto this narrow perch, balancing with one foot, afraid that he might slip.

Fortunately for him he did not. As he stepped off the point, his head hit something. When he reached the other side, he realized that his head had bumped into a tight cord strung between two trees. He could have used it to balance himself at that tricky pointed rock.

The coincidence offered advice to him. He could have noted how the father had helped the children manage that treacherous spot.  But instead he became absorbed in his own thoughts and missed the opportunity to learn how to navigate the hazardous, pointed rock.

Was the coincidence a Divine Gift he had failed to open?  Or was it a random event? Or something else? We don’t have a good explanation. We do know that the man was offered a coincidence, an opportunity to protect himself, and he ignored it.

Tennis Basket

On June 7, 2014, I went out to play tennis.  As I started warming up, a woman with two preteens started practicing two courts down. She shouted instructions and compliments to the boy while the girl hit off the backboard. After about 10 minutes, Will, my tennis partner drove up and called to me from outside the courts. He said he had a present in his car for me. He raised a tennis basket in the air—one of those metal cages for carrying lots of balls.  I shouted back that I already had one. But then the woman two courts down shouted that she needed one. She said she was going to buy one today to help teach the kids how to play tennis better.  Nice fit.

My Analysis of this Coincidence:

Emotion: It was a delightful surprise for all three of us. Will found someone who could use the basket. The woman did not have to buy one. And I witnessed a useful coincidence.

Process: I was in transition—this was my first tennis game of the new spring season with Will. Will came later than he had planned, making it possible for the woman to hear his offer to me. Had he come on time, I would have told him I did not need the basket, and she would not have been around to hear him.

Use: This coincidence became useful for all three of us. Will and the woman got their needs met, and I witnessed a simple, illustrative coincidence.

Explanation:  We three human beings crossed our life lines at a good time. We were actively moving about in our worlds. The crossings were unlikely. Perhaps someone could calculate the probabilities.  Will and the woman each had simple needs. Each made decisions to realize the fulfillment of those needs. I facilitated their meeting through arranging to play with Will. It was as if the meeting had been arranged. I believe that we three people met in this way through our subconscious, need-activated, human GPS capacity.

U.S. Network TV Does Coincidences

CBS News got into the coincidence debate on October, 12, 2014 by introducing Bill and Hillary Solomon who attribute their 16 year marriage to coincidences. Hillary believes that they would not have been married if not for this string of coincidences.

Bill’s mother and Hillary’s father were out-of-touch high school friends who reconnected through a coincidence 40 years later. (The details of the coincidence are not mentioned.)

They thought it was funny that one had a son named Bill and the other had a daughter named Hillary since the Clintons were in the White House at the time. Both children lived in New York City so they decided to encourage a date.

Turned out that Bill and Hillary lived in the same apartment building seven floors apart.

Bill did not follow his mother’s suggestion to call Hillary until he ran into a former co-worker in the lobby of the apartment building. She was visiting a really good friend—Hillary! So Bill called.

The statistician Jay Koehler argues that it’s all due to Chance. Person of faith SQuire Rushnell insists that it’s Divine Intervention. Science writer Matt Hutson says that the feeling of destiny makes us feel good but coincidences are destined only because of random chance. 

The Bill and Hillary coincidences then served as springboards for each expert to proclaim the correctness of his cherished beliefs.  Because their beliefs are dearer to them than actually examining the facts, they miss some important ideas.

No marriage stays together only because of coincidences. There are many marriages that start because of coincidences and the belief that “we are meant to be together.” Some couples find that they are incompatible despite the apparent promise of Fate. Successful marriages take more than coincidences to work. Bill and Hillary had much in common, starting with the fact that one of their parents came from the same place, that they could afford the same kind of apartment, and that they each found something attractive about New York City. And there had to be even more personal compatibility to keep them happily married. Coincidences can set the stage but do not determine the outcome. The people involved do.

Hutson further claims that the human tendency to be amazed by coincidences is “irrational.”  Au contraire! Coincidences can be entertaining, humorous, and thought provoking.  What’s wrong with that? I think he means that humans irrationally attribute causation where there is none. That claim flies in the face of scientific discovery and basic human adaptation to reality.  Without a meaningful coincidence penicillin would not have been discovered; the same is true of hundreds of other advances in science.  Babies learn how to maneuver in their world through finding the causal elements of some coincidences. For example, they learn that their cries are coincident with a caregiver’s coming to help them so they learn that their cries bring help. 

Coincidences can provide clues to underlying causal possibilities.  What made Bill go to the lobby of his apartment building just when his work colleague was coming to visit her friend Hillary? Random chance? Divine intervention?  I will guess that Bill felt an urge to be there at that time—an urge that he could not explain.

Dennis the Menace and the Statistician

As of 1/29/15 , on the website for his book The Improbability Principle, statistician David Hand starts with the story of the simultaneous publication in the US and England of the cartoon character Dennis the Menace in March, 1951.

Cartoonists in both countries introduced audiences to a trouble-causing little boy named Dennis, each of whom had a dog who helped create the chaos. The boys were quite different in their attitudes but not their results. The British Dennis intentionally caused trouble, while the American Dennis, always good-natured and angelic, consistently stumbled into trouble. Both boys were immensely popular. They each had hit a cultural pleasure nerve—the archetypal bad boy.

The British Dennis had gone to press ten days before the publication of the American Dennis, so there was no evidence of plagiarism

Professor Hand suggests that this coincidence is an example of low probability events that happen in large populations, sometimes known as the law of very large numbers. He does not recognize the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery, a well-established subset of coincidences. Simultaneous discovery appears to have an explanation more complicated and more specific than the law of very large numbers. The low probability draws our attention but does not explain the coincidence. It appears that cultures evolve with explorers on the edge, those seeking ideas that fit with current cultural interests, needs, and demands. The telephone, for example, was invented by two Americans each of whom presented their discovery to the US patent office on the same day: February 14, 1876. Also on the same day, Google and Stanford University separately announced the enhanced capacity for computers to recognize images. Each did not know the other was working on the project. There are hundreds more examples most without evidence of plagiarism.

Hank Ketcham, Marcus Hamilton, Ron Ferdinand

The simultaneous appearances of two Dennis the Menace and many other examples suggest that it is probability at play but another form of explanation involving cultural curiosity and need. “When the time is ripe for certain things,” remarked the Hungarian mathematician Farkas Bolyei, “they appear at different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.”

What is a Coincider?

A person who regularly experiences coincidences is called a coincider. Previous terms have included “experiencer,” “percipient,” and “synchoner.”

The term implies someone who shares an inside view with others as in co-insider. Coinciders are part of a developing group of people who find coincidences important, useful, and intriguing.

There are several stages in the coincider spectrum:

  1. A major coincidence grabs the person’s attention and/or early in life that person sees strings of them.
  2. That person then begins to look for them
  3. The coincider now begins to see many of them, and tries to understand and use them
  4. Coincidences then become an expected part of life, offering help, guidance, amusement, and peeks into probability, personal psychology, and mystery.

Two high frequency coinciders described themselves in this way:

“…frankly, this coincidence thing happens to me ALL THE TIME.  It’s to the point where my family members are uninterested in hearing about it, because nothing surprises them anymore.”

“I have been aware of these kinds of things my whole life and rate them 1 to 10, 1 being the least coincidental and 10 being many layered and complex and of the highest level I rate.”

The Problem and Promise of Probability

Many people believe that randomness , chance and probability provide the best explanations for coincidences. Their belief is strongly supported by an almost unassailable axiom: In Large Populations Low Probability Events Must Happen. 

In his book The Improbability Principle, statistician David Hand explains that “with a large enough number of opportunities, any outrageous thing is likely to happen. No mysteries are required to explain [coincidences]—no superstitions, no god. All that’s needed are the basic laws of probability.”

Another way of saying this: the reason we witness so many low probability events is that we are involved with an unimaginably large number of events.

Our statistician is performing a sleight of Hand.

By definition, coincidences are unlikely, low probability events.   Unlikeliness characterizes meaningful coincidences. Hand is trying to tell us that a defining characteristic of coincidences, low probability, explains their occurrence. That is like saying that I am a human being and I have a body. My body fully explains my behavior. 

Statisticians could begin with categorizing coincidences by degrees of probability. Some coincidence groups are just more improbable than others.  According to data from the Weird Coincidence survey thinking of someone and receiving a text message, email or phone call from that person is one of the most common coincidences. Why? Because we send so many texts and emails, and make many phone calls. And we often think about people. Two lines—the communication lines and the thoughts-about-people lines will sometimes intersect at the same person. 

The frequency of messaging and the frequency of thinking about other people are base rates—the basic rate of occurrence of the event.  The higher the base rate, the more likely a coincidence involving that line of life will happen. People are pretty good at intuitively estimating the probability of a coincidence.  Hopefully, we can elicit the help of statisticians in determining the varying probabilities of different classes of coincidences. The ones with very low or indeterminate base rates further raise the possibility of exploring other explanations for their occurrence.

The Elephant, the Statisticians and the Faithful

David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University and David Hand of the Imperial College of London are among several statisticians who believe that they have solved the coincidence problem.  Probabilities! Any event that can happen will happen given a large number of instances. If a coin is flipped an infinite number of times, there will sometime be a run of 100 tails in a row.

Life is not usually a series of coin flips except for lotteries and competitive games—someone has to win and occasionally the same person wins. Coincidences are defined by being low probability events, but there can be other contributions beyond probablities to their appearance. These include: subconscious intentions and behaviors, group dynamics, yet to be discovered scientific forces, and mystery.

The faithful have an answer not only to mystery but to probability. Their explanation is God who works wonders in mysterious ways. As the faithful are the first to declare—they do not know how God works His wonders. They simply have faith that He does. Faith is belief beyond the need for causal understanding.

Statisticians and the Faithful tend to use coincidences to affirm their beliefs about the nature of reality. Just as people who own a kind of car or drink a kind of beverage are confirmed in their choice by advertising for their car or drink, coincidences can be used to feel supported in holding your cherished belief. 

The statisticians and the faithful have only part of the truth, not all of it. The famous story of the elephant and the blind (in the dark) men trumpets this more accurate view.

In the common version of the tale, which originated in the Indian subcontinent, the blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is made of. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement. The person feeling a leg says it is a tree. Another feeling the side, says it is a wall. The tail feels like a rope, the tusk feels like a spear, the trunk like a snake, and the ear like a fan.

Like the blind men, those who feel certain about their knowledge of coincidence must recognize that each holds only a piece of the truth.

I invite my statistical and faithful colleagues to join with me in the search for a clearer understanding of the place of probability and mystery in the study of coincidences.

The Timely Old Friend

Erica Kosal desperately needed help. She wrote her story in Lois W. Stern’s  Tales2Inspire: The Emerald Collectionone of several books in this growing series. Erica’s very ill husband was incapacitated by Lyme disease. She was trying to balance caring for him and their two young children with working as a professor at a small liberal arts college.

In a stack of mail at her office, she found a strange looking manila envelope. Instead of sending it to the wastepaper basket, the handwriting grabbed her curiosity. It was from Dan, an old friend from graduate school with whom she had lost touch. He wanted her to know he was praying for her. Dan had no direct knowledge of Erica’s distress but had intuitively felt the need to pray for his old friend. He had not begun praying for any other person with whom he had lost contact. Here was simulpathity in action—the ability to feel the distress of loved one at a distance without knowing how. Erika was deeply moved by this unexpected, unlikely inspiration.

She wrote back. Through their correspondence, Dan connected deeply with her husband because Dan too was in poor health. The two men supported each other through grim physical losses. After many months, Dan died having offered love and support just when Erica and her husband needed it.

The Goddess of Wealth

In this video clip Mike Myers is entering the office of Deepak Chopra when he spots a card pasted to the wall. Surprised, Mike pulls out a deck of Indian god cards. The one of top is the same card as the one on the wall—the Goddess of Wealth. On his way out of the house, Mike had impulsively grabbed the deck to show Deepak. “If I had made a movie and pasted that card on the wall, no one would believe me.” Deepak offers an explanation for the coincidence based upon the “interconnection of everything” and orchestrated by the two of them. He then offers Mike advice based upon the coincidence:—Commit yourself to Goddess of Wisdom. The Goddess of Wealth will then become jealous and come after you. Money will follow you.

The 4 meanings in this meaningful coincidence are:

Emotional Charge—Mike Myers had trouble believing this low probability event actually happened. It seemed significant to him.

Parallel content—The two elements, the two cards, had exactly the same meaning.

Explanation—Deepak suggested that through their shared consciousness, the two of them had created the coincidence.

Use—Deepak thought that the surprising parallel meant that Mike should stay with his passion and ideals.

We can argue both Deepak’s explanation and use meanings. Staying with your passion and ideals is a good idea much of the time so this suggestion can be invoked at any opportunity. That the two men created the coincidence seems likely but a more detailed explanation is necessary.