current articles

When You Say "Coincidence," What Do You Choose It To Mean?

By Bernard Beitman, M.D

High Res MeaCoi.jpg

The definition of meaningful coincidence continues to evolve.

The term coincidence became a household word following the simultaneous deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after each had signed the United States Declaration of Independence.

They died in different places, Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia and Adams in Quincy, Massachusetts. The simultaneous deaths of these two men called out for an explanation. Did they each independently decide to leave this world on this auspicious anniversary? Or was it just a coincidence? Or something else?

The U.S president at that time was Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, who called the coincidence of their deaths on the nation's anniversary "visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor."  

Meaningful coincidences carry in their surprises hints of an elusive explanation.

Modifiers commonly used with “Coincidence”

  • Mere, only, and just suggest that the coincidence should be disregarded.

  • Coincidental also suggests that the event be disregarded.

  • Meaningful, remarkable, and amazing suggest that the coincidence deserves further attention.

Synchronicity and Serendipity

Both synchronicity and serendipity coincidentally begin with “s” and end with “ity." Each reflects the interests of its inventor—Jung’s clinical focus on the mind and Walpole's intrigue with finding things he needed. Each word highlights a different aspect of meaningful coincidences.

Synchronicity

Carl Jung coined the word from the Greek syn—with, together—and chronos—time. Synchronicity literally means moving-together-in-time. Jung created two primary definitions—the first is descriptive; the second refers to an explanation.

1. Descriptive

  • a. The fundamental characteristic that makes a coincidence into a synchronicity is the intense emotion produced in the coincider. Jung called this emotion “numinous”—intensely religious, spiritual, divine.

  • b. Some Jungians define synchronicity by its pragmatic effect. A meaningful coincidence must assist in psychological change—individuation—to be called a synchronicity.

  • c. Since the term has become popular more definitions have emerged. For example, “Synchronicity to me is an intentional message from the universe.” 

2. Explanatory

Jung also used the word synchronicity to explain synchronicities. He proposed that the mental and environmental events of a synchronicity are created by their shared meaning. Meaning was part of “an acausal connecting principle” that he put on equal status with causation. 

 

Because of the varying definitions Jung gave to his term, the meaning of synchronicity has been stretched in many different directions. I use synchronicity for high impact psychological coincidences. What do you mean by "synchronicity"?

 

Serendipity

Horace Walpole, a member of the British House of Commons in the 18th century, recognized in himself a talent for finding what he needed just when he needed it. 

 

He based the name on a fairy tale called “The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Sarendip.” Sarendip is an ancient name for the island nation Sri Lanka. The king of the fable recognized that education requires more than learning from books, so he sent his sons out of the country to broaden their experience. Throughout the story, the clever princes carefully observed their surroundings, and then used their observations in ways that saved them from danger and death.

For Walpole, serendipity meant finding, by chance, something valuable using informed observation (sagacity). The three ingredients of serendipity are, then, chance, informed observation and valued outcome.

Serendipity takes several forms:

  1. Looking for something and finding it in an unexpected way. Microbiologist Alexander Fleming was looking for an antibiotic and found it in 1928 on a petri dish in a laboratory sink.

  2. Looking for something and finding something else. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sought East Asia and landed in the New World.

  3. Observing something in one situation and recognizing how that something can fill a need in another situation. In 1941, Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral in 1941 wondered why Burdock seeds clung to his coat and invented Velcro.

 

Seriality and Simulpathity

Also beginning with an “s” and ending with an “ity”, seriality and simulpathity apply to smaller groups of meaningful coincidences.

Seriality

Biologist Paul Kammerer spent hours sitting on benches in various public parks in Vienna noting repetitions among the people who passed by. He classified them by sex, age, dress, whether they carried umbrellas or parcels, and by many other details. He did the same during the long train rides from his home to his office in Vienna. Kammerer was not particularly interested in meaning—only repeated sequences of numbers, names, words, and letters. Two examples can illustrate his thinking: His wife was in a waiting room reading about a painter named Schwalbach when a patient named Mrs. Schwalbach was called into the consultation room.  A second example involved his friend Prince Rohan. On the train his wife was reading a novel with a character “Mrs. Rohan.” She then saw a man get on the train who looked like Prince Rohan. Later that night the Prince himself unexpectedly dropped by their house for a visit.

He defined “seriality” as “a recurrence of the same or similar things or events in time and space” which, “are not connected by the same acting cause.”  To him these repetitions were simply natural phenomena.

 

In his 1919 book Das Gesetz Der Serie (The Law of the Series), Kammerer outlined these laws along with a broad set of classifications of their types and qualities.

Seriality, in an expansion of Kammerer's definition,  applies to observable sequences of similarities like the three Rohans. The Rohan series could have been seen by another person. Synchronicity and serendipity usually involve a private mental event and an observable environmental event.

Simulpathity

I coined simulpathity to describe a personal experience shared by numerous people.

Simulpathity — from the Latin simul (simultaneous) and the Greek pathos (suffering)—differs from “sympathy.” The sympathetic person is aware of the suffering of the other but does not usually feel it. In simulpathity, one person suffers along with the other person and may feel some form of that suffering. The two people are not in the same place. Only later is the simultaneity of the distress recognized. Some twins know when and why they are feeling pain—the other twin is now feeling it. Simulpathity is emotional/physical and usually subconscious empathy at a distance.

Often, the two people share a strong emotional bond especially twins. Mann and Jaye interviewed 20 adult twins who reported that sometimes they shared the symptoms one illness.  

Simulpathity suggests that the individuals are more closely bonded than current scientific thought holds possible. Evolving

Definitions of words evolve as their users find innovative ways to apply them. The study of meaningful coincidences is enhanced by trying out possible definitions that can expand our understanding of them. 

Bernard Beitman, M.D., is the first psychiatrist since Carl Jung to systematize the study of coincidences. A graduate of Yale Medical School, he did his psychiatric residency at Stanford University. The former chair of psychiatry of the University of Missouri-Columbia medical school for 17 years, he writes a blog for “Psychology Today” on coincidence and is the coauthor of the award-winning book “Learning Psychotherapy.” The founder of The Coincidence Project, he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia https://coincider.com/

High Res Beitman_Bernard.jpg