On December 23, 1988, I was in a head-on collision in my mother’s 1976 Datsun B-210. I was driving through Mendon, Massachusetts on a snowy afternoon when my car slid into the opposite lane and met a Mercedes Benz halfway down a hill.
I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt at the time, even though I always wore my seatbelt. As a result, I was severely injured in the accident. My head went through the windshield, and my legs became embedded in the air conditioning unit. I stopped breathing and my heart stopped beating for about a minute in the back of an ambulance before paramedics used CPR restored my life. My legs required multiple surgeries. There is still glass in my forehead to this day.
Thirty years later, I was telling this story as a part of a talk for a large healthcare provider in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I finished speaking, I sat down at a table beside the CEO of the company. He grabbed my forearm and pulled me close.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “I was in a car accident that day, too. Same snowstorm. While driving a Datsun B-210. I slid through an intersection that night in Roxbury, and a snowplow tore the back half of the car right off.”
Same day. Same storm. Same make and model of car.
Incredible coincidence. Right?
Five years ago, I was standing in a hot dog line on Father’s Day at a minor league baseball game, emailing a YMCA director at a camp 90 miles north, hoping to plan the annual fifth grade trip to the camp that fall. The man, whose name is Pat, had uncharacteristically not responded to my last three emails. With time to kill, I decided to send another email.
I opened the email app, opened a new email, and typed Pat’s name in the address field. Then I looked up. Pat was standing in front of me. He was wearing a minor league baseball uniform, leading the people dressed up as catsup, mustard, and relish through the concourse, cutting the line directly in front of me.
Part had quit his job at the YMCA camp and was now a director of the Rock Cats entertainment team.
I began to send an email to a man who I barely know, and at that very moment, he appeared before me. At a baseball game. In a hot dog line.
Incredible coincidence. Right?
A few years ago, Elysha and I walked into a bookstore to find an author lecturing about storytelling and memoir to an audience of a couple dozen readers. Almost immediately, Elysha (then I) realized that the author was teaching my own strategies and trademarked methods and claiming them as her own. She eventually saw me browsing the stacks, faltered, and finally felt compelled to introduce me to her audience, admitting that much of what she was teaching had actually come from me.
Imagine how that author felt when she saw me walk into the store at the very moment she was stealing my content.
Quite the coincidence for both of us.
Knowing that I struggle with faith, knowing that I would like to believe in a benevolent God and an after-life, and knowing that I refer to myself as reluctant atheist, many, many people over the years have tried to help me find some faith in a greater power.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses who took me off the street when I was homeless tried to gently nudge me in the direction of the Lord through stories and prayer.
Readers have written hundreds of emails and Facebook messages over the years desperately trying to save my soul.
Rabbis have tried to convince me that I can believe in God while still questioning the nature of the Lord’s existence.
Many of these attempts have used coincidences like these as proof that God exists. When these remarkable, seemingly impossible moments of serendipity occur, how could one not think that God had a hand in their making?
A rabbi once referred to these moments as “a wink from God.”
Admittedly the world is filled with extraordinary coincidences beyond my own.
Stephen Hawking shares his birth and death dates with Galileo and Einstein, respectively.
Sailor Richard Parker was cannibalized by his shipmates—just like Edgar Allen Poe’s character of the same name was cannibalized by shipmates in a story published 46 years earlier.
John Wilkes Booth’s brother famously saved Abraham Lincoln’s son from death. And that same son, Robert Todd Lincoln, witnessed three presidential assassinations.
Coincidences even occur in science. Solar eclipses, for example, only occur because the sun is about 400 times wider than the moon but also 400 times farther away, making the two appear the same size in the night sky. If the sun or moon were slightly larger or slightly smaller, or if the distance between the two was slightly altered, solar eclipses would not be possible.
What are the odds?
My favorite coincidence was told on the WYNC podcast Radiolab. In 2001, a 10-year-old girl named Laura Buxton released a red balloon from the front yard of her home. On the side of the balloon, she had written the words, “Please return to Laura Buxton,” along with her address.
The balloon traveled roughly 140 miles south before descending, and finally landed in the yard of another 10-year-old girl.
The second girl’s name? Also Laura Buxton.
After getting in touch and explaining the coincidence, the girls decided to meet, and discovered a whole range of uncanny similarities. Not only did they look and dress alike, but both girls had three-year-old chocolate labs, a grey rabbit, and a guinea pig, and both had brought their guinea pigs to the meeting, unplanned.
How could these moments not be winks from God? Evidence of a higher power?
I don’t buy it. I wish I did, but I just don’t. With billions of human beings on this planet, engaged in trillions of interactions at any given moment, coincidences are not only probable but likely.
It’s simply a numbers game. The numbers are astronomically large, beyond human comprehension, therefore the coincidences are probable. They may feel divine in the moment, especially when they happen to you, but ultimately you are part of the math, too. A simple integer in the grand equation.
Coincidences will invariably happen to all of us. Some big. Some small. Most seemingly remarkable at the time.
But not the product of a higher power.
To this end, I launched a new religion about a year ago called Coincidentalism. Members of the faith (currently three in number) acknowledge and celebrate the remarkable nature of coincidences while firmly rejecting the notion that a higher power is manipulating events to make them happen.
We embrace the extraordinary nature of coincidences while viewing them as the rather ordinary outcomes of an enormous system of component parts and endless interactions.
Our belief can be boiled down to:
Coincidences are amazing! Also expected! Because math!
Coincidentalism does not prevent you from also believing in a higher power. It does not reject the possibility of God or some similarly spiritual (and perhaps less violent and self-obsessed) being. Both belief systems are perfectly capable of operating independently of each other.
God exists. Also coincidences happen.
I still want to believe in a higher power. An afterlife. I still cannot, but if I someday find the faith I so desperately desire, I will continue to celebrate coincidences for what they are:
The remarkable results of a cosmic pinball machine, constantly bouncing everything off everything else, resulting in moments of extraordinarily frequent unlikeliness.
Coincidentalism. Plenty of room if you’d like to join the congregation.