coincidences as messages

Having finished reading The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb on Monday, yesterday, Tuesday, I decided to resume reading volume 5 of The Great Books of the Western World, entitled simply Aeschylus Sophocles Euripides Aristophanes—a collection of the works of the great Greek playwrights.

I’m about 1/3 of the way through the 649-page volume, so I’ve finished the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles and am making my way through Euripides. Now where had I left off? Ah: I’m about to start a play called Hippolytus. Not knowing who that was or what it was about, I turned briefly to another book nearby called Classical Drama: Greek and Roman by Meyer Reinhold—a 1950s paperback I picked up from the estate of my late friend Harvey Burt (it has the name “Burt” felt-penned boldly on the edges of the pages outside the book). Reading the one-paragraph background to the play, I learned that Hippolytus was the illegitimate son of Theseus, king of Athens, by the Amazon queen Hippolyte. Hippolytus shunned women and spent his time hunting. Now Theseus had married the young princess of Crete, Phaedra, by whom he had had several children. But when Phaedra first saw Hippolytus, she fell madly in love with her stepson, who was about her own age. From that moment she struggled not to reveal her secret passion.

So much for the background. With that in hand, I jumped in and started reading the play aloud, a practice that I find greatly enhances my ability to understand and enjoy the play. As usual I read about 5 or 6 pages—maybe 40% of the play—then left off the rest for my next session and picked up my next book for the day: A Study of History, volume 2, by Arnold J. Toynbee.

I was getting to the end of his long chapter on “The Golden Mean”, about how the right level of challenge to a society, neither too much nor too little, causes it to launch into vigorous, creative existence—to be born. And then I came to this passage:

In the language of Mythology, the encounter between two superhuman personalities, which is the dynamic force in human affairs and the key to the plots of the great tragic works of art, does not result semper et ubique et omnibus in the denouement which is given to the play in the Book of Job and in Goethe’s Faust. A wager between God and the Devil in which the Devil cannot be the winner nor God the loser is not, after all, the course which the action of this universal drama invariably follows. It turns out that this is only one possible rendering of the plot—a rendering which depends upon the terms in which the bet is offered and taken; and there is another alternative rendering in which the denouement is that of Euripides’ Hippolytus.

This passage is one of the more obscure ones I’ve come across in Toynbee, but how could I not be struck by seeing reference to the play Hippolytus when I had only discovered its existence and started reading it mere minutes before? It was a coincidence—and that made me feel good.

Why good? Because I believe coincidences are a sign that you are on the right track. They’re telling you that you’re going the right way, that you’re in the right place at the right time. This notion though is not original with me.

Probably the first reference to this idea that I encountered was in reading Carl Jung, in particular his famous essay “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle”, published as part of volume 8 of his Collected Works, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. The essay, first published in 1952, proposes the introduction of a new concept and term, synchronicity, to label our experience of the meaningful connection of events that are connected in time and space by being simultaneously experienced, but which have no common causal connection. Jung gives a few examples. One, if I recall it correctly, happened when he was talking with a patient. The patient had had a dream in which was given a golden scarab. While she was relating the dream, there came a gentle tapping at the window behind Jung. He turned to see a flying insect tapping at the pane. When he opened the window, in flew a beetle: a common rose-chafer which is a scarabaeid and, in Jung’s words, “the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, . . . which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment.”

The woman’s dream and her telling of it presumably had no causal connection with the behavior of the beetle. But they nonetheless arrived together in a striking way—a way that felt meaningful to Jung and the patient. Most of us, if we think about it, have had similar experiences.

A memorable one for me concerned the same friend Harvey Burt whom I mentioned above, when he was ill in hospital in 2003. I was detailed to visit his house once or twice a week to take in the mail and see that all was well. One day I arrived to discover a gift-basket on the front porch containing a pot of white lilies. The attached card said something like, “To Marilyn from Michael and Diane”—all people I’d never heard of.

I phoned the florist and told them they’d made a mistake, and they sent someone to pick up the basket. But within the next day or two I got the news that Harvey had died. The white lilies had been for him after all—care of synchronicity.

Those are striking examples, but there are many smaller ones, if you keep your eyes peeled.

When I was reading Ulysses this year I learned that James Joyce regarded coincidences as signs of divine guidance, and I know that Caroline Myss teaches this as well: coincidences are how the Divine communicates with us and lets us know that we’re on track. Joseph Campbell in Creative Mythology describes how Arthur Schopenhauer developed a similar idea in the early 19th century.

I’m not sure what “track” my Hippolytus coincidence is pointing to, but at the very least I take it as a sign that, for me, I’m at least reading the right things at the right time. I’ll be interested to finish reading Hippolytus, which I intend to do this afternoon, to see whether Euripides has a message for me there. No matter what though, I feel an unseen guiding hand, and am very glad it’s there.

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