synchronicity

A reader of Sesquiotica from India emailed me recently. He wanted to know the word for something. He recounted a recent experience a friend of his had:

He was visiting a famous hill resort near Poona and staying in an old and popular British-era hotel there. It so happened that once upon a time (say between 1950 and 70), a very famous Hindi film hero and his equally famous actress wife used to visit this hotel almost twice a month and stayed in a suite that was specially reserved for them. My friend is a fan of the couple, and has seen almost all of their films many times over. He knew about their suite in that hotel. (The hero is no more but his 90+ wife is still alive.) So while there, he casually asked the manager about the couple’s visits to that place. He was delighted beyond words when he was informed that the old actress was right then in the hotel, still occupying that old suite. He asked if he could meet her and pay his respects. The manager agreed to see what could be done. In less than half an hour my friend was ushered into that suite and introduced to the lady. Then she and my friend chatted for some time. He told her about his fondness for the couple and she talked about her husband. Then my friend took his leave.

This morning while travelling back to Poona (where he lives), my friend was greatly surprised to see a song video that I’d forwarded to him on Whatsapp late last night. It featured this very couple and it was a song from a 1950 film in which they had acted together. Now I had no knowledge of my friend’s visit to the old girl just a few hours earlier. I had got the video from someone and just forwarded it to him, as I knew he liked those two. Imagine his great surprise when he opened it and saw the same lady whom he had seen the previous night (though much changed in appearance and looks due to old age).

My reader’s friend – and my reader – wanted to know what the word for this sort of thing could be. If, that is, there was one.

There is.

Well, you’ve already seen it. That’s the downside of titling these posts after the word of the day: there are no dramatic reveals. Yes, it’s synchronicity.

Synchronicity! But this is mere coincidence, no? There’s no kind of actual thing happening behind the scenes? No causal principle? It’s only meaningful because it’s perceived as meaningful?

Yes, that’s what synchronicity is, as Carl Jung defined it. It’s acausal: one of the things does not cause the other, and the two things are not caused by a third thing. They happen to occur in a way that a given person perceives as meaningful, and because of that perception, they are meaningful. 

Is it just the operation of random chance, then? Well, we don’t really know, do we? There are too many factors going on in the world at the same time to be able to track and trace all of them. And at any given time, countless things are happening and any pair of them could be seen as having some connection if you look at them from the right angle. 

It’s like constellations: we see connect-the-dots patterns in stars and trace shapes over them, but stars that appear to us to be in straight lines may be at wildly varying differences in distance, and if you could shift the perspective even a few degrees, the pattern would be entirely different. And yet constellations, fortuitously matched to times of the year, have been (through astrology) assigned to variations in personal inclination that could be due to differences in diet or weather at the time of birth, or due to nothing other than confirmation bias.

Wave your hand and say “pfaugh” all you want. Smirk at people who draw cards or throw coins to get advice on their present or future states. Snicker at people who, needing something to move them forward in a decision, pull an important book off the shelf and open it at random and read what catches their eye. Maybe even giggle when someone tosses a coin to make a decision and, seeing the result, realizes that they really wanted to do the other thing. But do you deprecate writing prompts? You know, when someone, wanting to get rolling on writing a story, gets a sentence or image or idea and uses that as the basis for creation? 

We are all wanting to tell the stories of our lives, and sometimes we have writer’s block and need something to get us going. And these little prompts help us to crystallize what we’re thinking, and to start telling the story we needed to tell. We see patterns, and we make them meaningful, and we use them to write our stories. As Schopenhauer put it in Parerga and Paralipomena (E.F.J. Payne’s translation), all events in life stand “in two fundamentally different kinds of connection”: 

firstly, in the objective, causal connection of the natural process; secondly, in a subjective connection which exists only in relation to the individual who experiences it, and which is thus as subjective as his own dream.

And, frankly, some patterns aren’t so hard to make meaningful. Sure, if you walk in the dark through your house and see a threatening figure which, after a moment, you realize is a coat rack, or if you look into clouds or mountains or a slice of toast and see a face, you know that this is because your mind by default tries to find faces and figures, and sometimes it gives false positives. But when you just happen to find an old movie star in the hotel you’re in, and then to get – by pure coincidence – a video of that star in her prime sent by a friend, why shouldn’t you wonder if someone is setting something up for you? Someone is – you are! And maybe not just you, though you don’t know for sure.

But look, while relying on such things all the time might be problematic, the right coincidence at the right moment can sometimes be very useful. Here’s a famous example from Carl Jung’s book Synchronicity:

A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment.

It was an extraordinarily difficult case to treat, and up to the time of the dream little or no progress had been made. I should explain that the main reason for this was my patient’s animus, which was steeped in Cartesian philosophy and clung so rigidly to its own idea of reality that the efforts of three doctors—I was the third—had not been able to weaken it. Evidently something quite irrational was needed which was beyond my powers to produce. The dream alone was enough to disturb ever so slightly the rationalistic attitude of my patient. But when the “scarab” came flying in through the window in actual fact, her natural being could burst through the armor of her animus possession and the process of transformation could at last begin to move.

The patient – and Jung – was waiting for something. And here was a something.

So here’s to something. To making meaning where we find a way to make it. Life is fun. Let it be fun.

One response to “synchronicity

  1. I recently took Darryl Miyaghchi’s vocabulary test which is available along with Peter Schmies test. Do you think you would approach these tests differently now? Do you sometimes think about people who interact with you via your website as potential candidates for coherence testing?

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