“Have we met?” The highs and lows of happenstance

There is a girl from my university – I do not know her name – who I see absolutely everywhere. In the grocery store in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, at a bar in Bastille, at the gym at Republique. We have no friends in common (that I know of) and we have never actually spoken, yet this random person seems to have an inextricable link to my existence. But why? What is this driving force that has pushed us into the same space at the same time repeatedly? Is it the world telling us we simply must meet and now, or just that little thing we call “happenstance?”

It seems that more and more, I am having these “Wow, small world!” moments. Often, there is no more rhyme or reason for these fateful meetings than there is for Sarah Palin to have ever considered running for US president.

As the global population expands to its breaking point, with a seven billionth person landing on the planet a few weeks ago, I find no fewer connections between people in my life. Perhaps with all the extra humans on earth, we are being pushed ever closer by some cosmic force. Maybe globalization has gotten the last laugh. The more we spread out across the globe – for work, love or the promise of adventure – the more we are connected in miniscule, haphazard ways.

But what does it mean? Or does it mean nothing? As a regular tarot card reader and astrology nut, I find myself placing meaning on situations when it is convenient, or fitting. That girl from university I see everywhere? Must just be random. But the dashing blond man I see everywhere from the Gambetta metro station to the Monoprix at Opera? We simply must be destined to be together.

This is what psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias.” It’s the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms our preconceptions, but avoids information and interpretations that might contradict our prior beliefs.

Yet I am not the only one fostering meaning into these ephemeral meetings. I still remember the time I saw an old friend in a shoe store in Paris. We hadn’t seen each other for years and it just so happened, he was leaving for India indefinitely the next day. We stood there staring dumbfounded at each other for five minutes until the storeowner kindly asked me if I was actually going to buy the shoe still stuck on my foot. As my friend and I parted ways that evening, he said, “Don’t you think this means something?” Fully knowing his romantic feelings for me and my platonic ones for him, all I could utter was, “No, not really.”

But even I couldn’t believe that statement. Everything means something. We would not be here, in this place where we’re standing, without all the little experiences before, now, everywhere. Without every moment, person met, job taken or love lost, I would not be everything that I am right now.

Yet, I’m still not convinced. There must be some better, more concrete explanation.

My friend’s father, a religious Jew, would undoubtedly respond to situations like the ones I’ve explained with, “Is it odd, or is it God?” Indeed, a more religious person than I would equate these random experiences with makings of a higher power; of a God who is trying to teach me something with every person met, every connection made. But isn’t that taking the easy way out? Explaining the unexplained by something I can’t tangibly construct doesn’t necessarily help me understand why I seem to be connected to some people more than others, or why those connections can fluctuate between strong (to the point of scary) to non-existent.

A couple of years ago, an ex-boyfriend and I seemed to be banded together like white on rice. However you want to explain it – the planets aligned, it was fate, destiny, whatever – our paths seemed to cross whether we liked it or not. And then one day, the connection broke like a flimsy thread. Without warning, that link was gone, dead, never to be revived again. Maybe there’s no reason for any of this, maybe I’ve looked far too long and hard into the matter. Or maybe the I Ching can explain.

The ancient Chinese texts use a complex set of 64 hexagrams that show how energy flows throughout a situation, and its answers are extremely sensitive to the nuances of human interaction. For many, an I Ching reading can provide guidance on how to proceed during difficult times or even a glimpse into the future. By the tossing of three coins, an I Ching prophecy could explain the probability of why people cross paths at certain moments in life.

Then there is the theory of “synchronicity” by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. In the 1920s, Jung first coined the term to describe what he called “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events,” or in other words, “meaningful coincidence.” Synchronicity can describe the governing dynamic that underlies human experience and leads to our collective unconscious. Under this logic, events that are seemingly unlikely to occur together by chance may occur together in a meaningful manner.

So maybe there is some reason this random girl and I keep crossing. Up until now, I’ve been too lazy or scared to bridge the gap and actually ask her her name, where she is from and what she is doing at the Eiffel Tower on a Tuesday morning, just as I am. Perhaps there is an important meaning in our meetings, a meaning I couldn’t possibly know yet because for whatever reason, it has not yet been the time to find out. Maybe it will be something profound that will change the course of my life forever. It could be like Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” within the chaos theory, where a small change at one place in time can result in major differences in a later state. Our connection could change history as we know it.

Or maybe, who knows, it could just be happenstance.

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2 responses to ““Have we met?” The highs and lows of happenstance

  1. Whoa!! This has got to be, as you say, the most happenstanc-ee thing I have ever heard. And yes, I DO think it means something. How could it not? Too many cosmic connections. If I were you, I’d stand by and wait for the big moment when you figure it all out 🙂

  2. So, there was also a guy I saw everywhere in Manchester for a good while, and not just your running-into-each-other-at-parties shizz (although that’s fun), this was the slightly more obscure standing-in-same-queue-for-printer, you-bike-one-way-I-walk-the-other stuff. One day, after about six months of such happenstances I was skiving and smoking outside the library with my best girlfriend (whose good friends I thought I had down because they are also in general my friends, or I at least know who they are). We were shooting the breeze talking about, as it happens, exactly this topic, and it turned out we both had such happenstanc-ees in Manchester (hers was a double whammy as it was a couple). I was just in the middle of describing this guy when, out of nowhere, THERE HE IS and, what?!, he’s giving my best girlfriend a hug and they’re all like “oh, it’s been a long time”. So my happenstancee happenstanced in the middle of a conversation about happenstance! And then, it turns out, we share the same group of friends (the length of the list of fb mutual friends made me double-take), yet had, somehow, until that initial “woah, it’s you!” (from both of us, I had also been clocked as his happenstanc-ee)remained compleeetely unaware of this. Was this also significant? We both made vague noises about going for a proper coffee together, that first time and then, in the subsequent times that we continued to run into each other in not-very-runny-into-people places (out of the way parks and street corners). Then, just the other week he was, hold up, also in Paris for the first time since living there a couple of years ago. This was also the weekend my Casual Dutch boy was in town, so I go to meet happenstanc-ee with him in tow, guiltily vaguely chewing over how platonic our Paree rendezvous might have been had said Dutch boy not been there. So we show up, I make introductions and go and fetch some drinks, come back to here them blathering away IN DUTCH. Turns out happenstanc-ee spent a good chunck of his childhood in the land of the tulips.
    Does any of this mean anything? No idea.

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