God-Universe and probability rank as the two most popular explanations for coincidences. These explanations do not include the possible contributions of the people experiencing the coincidences: the coinciders. Either God-Universe did it for you as in “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous”. Or probability explains the coincidence because “In large populations any strange thing can happen”.
Subconsciously, we can create our own coincidences
We subconsciously create some coincidence situations to help us resolve psychological conflicts. We then attribute the coincidence to an outside agency, neglecting to notice the primary role we play in creating them (see psychoanalyst Gibbs Williams).
A man had committed to attend an evening meeting. When he arrived at his home, he realized that he did not want to go. He wanted to eat dinner and relax. Nevertheless, he dutifully got into his car. He looked at the gas gauge. Empty! He took it as a sign that he did not need to go.
He was the one who did not put gas in the car! He resolved his ambivalence by neglecting to put gas in the car.
One of our study participants reported:
“After I was widowed, I was concerned with what my late husband would think about my dating another man. One day while visiting his grave, I accidentally cut my ring finger with some grass clippers. I had to go to the Emergency Department, where they removed my wedding ring. My boyfriend and I took it as a sort of sign that it was okay to proceed in our relationship.”
She had cut her ring finger! As Freud has helped us see, what seems accidental sometimes has hidden intent. She wanted to be freed of her marital commitment so that she could be involved with the new man in her life. The cut ring finger triggered a cascade of events that helped resolve her conflict.
Sometimes it is not so easy to see the role a person plays in creating a coincidence.
A 55 year old man could not convince his wife that they should be divorced. She knew he had a new woman friend, but she did not believe that this new relationship was serious enough to mean the marriage was over.
One Sunday, the man and his wife were scheduled to have brunch with his mother who was very much against the idea of divorce. He was living in a rented house and was to meet them at the family home. He did not show up. He did not answer his phone. Fearing a heart attack, his wife anxiously drove to his rented house. She was greeted by the new woman friend’s dog. Startled, hurt, and angry she concluded that her husband was living with this new woman and that the marriage was over.
However, he was only dog-sitting for the weekend. He and his woman friend were not living together.
I analyzed the story with him.
Because he was anxious about the brunch, he had taken some alprazolam (Xanax) to calm himself down. He took too much and was upstairs sleeping when his anxious wife arrived. By taking the excess alprazolam he had subconsciously created the confrontation-coincidence between his woman friend’s dog and wife.
He was delighted with the outcome. His wife now accepted the inevitability of divorce.
In this final illustration Ali, a colleague of mine, encountered a scene rich in metaphors about his personal romantic struggle. Like a friend, colleague, or psychotherapist who reflects back to you what you are thinking, Ali encountered a scene that helped him decide what to do.
On a solo trip he rented a bike in Amsterdam remembering the relationship he had ended because he thought she was not “elegant” enough. He noticed a shawarma [grilled Arabian meat] stand in the middle of a market and his hunger started to build up. The image of a perfect next meal started to form. He saw himself sitting at a fancy restaurant table, right on a canal, watching the boats slowly go by. Nothing spoke more loudly than the shawarma in terms of unique, but the setting was all wrong. Not fancy enough. He got on his bike and saw countless restaurants along the way. But this one wasn’t on a canal, and that one was just trite Italian cuisine. Another was a Burger King. An amazingly fancy place with tables right on the canal served only drinks.
His hunger grew stronger, and a practical dilemma presented itself. He couldn’t continue looking for his perfect scene forever. At some point he would have to eat. Maybe perfection was not the only goal.
He came upon a bridge over a canal—not a glamorous part of the city by any means. Near the bridge, three jazz musicians improvised. A crowd of people sat on the base of a sculpture nearby enjoying a mild summer breeze and music. An “aha” moment hit him, and a new picture started to form. He flew to the nearby shawarma stand and rushed the man to provide him a sandwich.
He sat down among the crowd and enjoyed a pleasant lunch with the sound of music and a view of the canal, surrounded by friendly people.
His heart jumped at the perfection of the moment. He chatted excitedly with people around. And as the happiness sank in, he remembered the last time he was this happy, and a sad insight hit him. His sadness bridged the two experiences.
He had just left his perfect happiness. He remembered her, the witty exchanges, and the deep conversations. He remembered how affectionate she was, and how affectionate he was and how both of them were addicted to travel and didn’t own a TV.
He saw how all the bits and pieces of what he had always wanted. She was intellectual and reserved. She understood him, and he understood her. But he had let her go because his darkness prevailed. For him things had to be fancy and perfect. He failed to see beyond her modest beauty because he needed to be seen with a stunning woman as he entered a room. As he basked in the sun of his coincidental heaven, he looked around at the happiness he found by the shabby bridge and the asphalt road, only to realize that none of it mattered. His quarrels with the relationship seemed utterly ridiculous. He saw how the world reflected his thought patterns. As he looked into the mirror of his mind, he could see his error. The insight hit him, and he couldn’t hold back the tears. He cried at the loss of the happiness with her. Even though he wasn’t looking for her when he found her, he was determined to find her again.
Ali could have attributed this coincidence between what he was thinking and his surroundings to God-Universe or to probability. The simplest explanation was his need to find a solution to his conflict about elegance versus intimacy. The scene he chose/found became a mirror of his mind that allowed him to realize what he needed/wanted to do.
The range of explanations for coincidences
Randomness and God are opposing positions for explaining coincidences. Each explanation tends to ignore the coincider. Probability plays a necessary role because some coincidences are more unlikely than others. Mystery can play a major role because our minds cannot grasp the multiple stirrings hidden behind the veil of our ignorance. Doesn’t God help those who help themselves? These stories illustrate how conventional psychology can be the best explanation for some coincidences. Let’s look for the conventional explanations first.