“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced.” Joseph Campbell
I have been asked to write about synchronicity and serendipity. What are they? Is there any difference between them? I relish the opportunity to put down in words my profound appreciation for synchronicity and serendipity, as they are two of life’s gifts that fill me with deep gratitude and wonder.
Let me say up front that I have no idea whether the meaning that I find in events and people and nature is created inside my own mind, or whether I am bending my mind and heart to make life meaningful. Who can say? This distinction is not important to me and the question is distracting. It’s a little like being at the peak of a roller coaster and pausing the scene to analyze whether I am just making up the feeling of exhilaration. Just feel the moment and enjoy the feeling. What is important is that I experience meaning and miracle as much as possible.
In order for an event to qualify as synchronicity or serendipity it has to be surprising. It has to shake you out of some habitual mindset that deludes you into believing that life has predictable patterns that you can control and explain. Some situations defy easy answers. Déjà vu, uncanny premonitions, recurring dreams, ridiculously improbable meetings, outrageous “jinx” moments – these are all beautiful, if sometimes eerie, experiences.
There is no particular causal link. For example, I am eating in a restaurant on the other side of the world in a place I have never been and there is my neighbor at the next table. We didn’t plan it. There is no rhyme or reason as to why this should happen. And yet, it feels like more than coincidence. We have a conversation that the frenetic pace of home life never allowed for. We forge a new bond. A friendship is born.
As Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said, it’s “more than chance, and less than causality”. It’s a meaningful coincidence, even if just because it leaves me gasping at the possibility of miracles in every day moments.
Birds and creatures so often seem to be agents of meaningful coincidences, like a white dove hovering at the baptism of Jesus. The hummingbird appears at particular moments of self reflection as if to remind you to be gentle with yourself. The crow reappears high on the pole as if to warn you to pay attention. Jung had his own meaningful encounter with a beetle. A patient was telling him about a dream that involved a golden scarab beetle, when he heard a tap at his window. Jung opened the window and in flew a scarab beetle. Its colors matched the description of her dream. The scarab beetle was rare in that part of the world. It was an unexpected visitor. He handed the beetle to the woman and said, “Here is your scarab.” By all reports, the woman had some major breakthroughs as a result of the experience. The beetle became a symbol for transformation and wholeness.
So often, moments of synchronicity and serendipity occur at times of crisis and vulnerability. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. The teacher may be a person or a beetle, a meeting or an event.
What is the difference between synchronicity and serendipity? It’s a very subtle difference, and not one that is particularly important. Serendipity is a surprising event or meeting that feels meaningful. Serendipity is running into someone and in the course of the conversation realizing that this is exact connection necessary at this point in your life. Synchronicity is two or more events that seem meaningful because they happen at the same time. Synchronicity is hearing the same phrase used several times in the same day and realizing that it’s the piece of a thought puzzle you had been looking for.
One of the most amazing moments of serendipity I have ever heard about was the story of a Jewish man from Ohio who visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The man had some unresolved tension with his deceased father. He was blaming himself for his father’s death and decided to leave a note to his father in the wall. It is commonly believed that the stones in the wall have healing power. His note said, “Dear Father, I beg you to forgive me for the pain I caused you. I loved you very much and I will never forget you. And please know that nothing that you taught me was in vain. I will not betray your family’s deaths. I promise.” He placed the note into a small crack in the wall and in the process dislodged another note. He couldn’t resist reading it. Incredibly, it turned out to be a note from his father. It said, “My Dear Son Joey, If you should ever happen to come to Israel and somehow miraculously find this note, this is what I want you to know: I always loved you even when you hurt me, and I will never stop loving you. You are, and always will be, my beloved son. And Joey, please know that I forgive you for everything, and only hope that you in turn will forgive a foolish old man.”
The son was ready, and the teacher came in the form of the most amazing and transformative coincidence. Maybe the long and short of it all is to have an open mind and heart so that more and more situations feel meaningful and significant. Choose to live as if coincidences are God’s way of staying anonymous. Choose to believe that people and events, especially the surprising ones, are sacred experiences.
For my part, I choose to believe that my meeting with the love of my life twenty years ago was serendipity. There was no logical reason why we should meet, coming from different cities and worlds. The meeting was meaningful and created a family and a life calling. The birth of my three children, the moves from Australia to New Zealand to America, the encounter with some of the most amazing people in the world – these and more situations are encounters with a mystery that sources my life and fills me with joy.
Serendipity and synchronicity call me beyond the thoughts I’ve known to soar like a bird and shine like a golden beetle. They remind me to trust life which surely has more plans and purposes than I could ever imagine. So many moments are tapping at the window of my consciousness, asking to come in. All I need to do is open the window.
But don’t take my word for it. Look to your own experience. As Rumi said, “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” Find your own meaning. Realize your own miracles. The universe is waiting to greet your openness. Fill the hunger in your spirit by discovering the miracle and meaning that is lurking in every moment. This is the true joy of being alive. Celebrate the conspiracy of coincidences that are collaborating in the creation of your life’s calling.