“Coincidence?”

coincidence-1

“Coincidence?”

I have a particular fondness for deer. After many a summer sojourn in Downeast Maine, I once said to friends, “You know, I’ve never seen a deer here.” That very afternoon, as I was driving home, a doe obligingly leaped across the road ahead. “Oh thank you!” I blurted to her without thinking.

It was a different day of a different Maine summer, when I penned the last sentence of an Introduction to a book by my father about two philosophers, Hobbes and Spinoza, which was to be published posthumously. Capping my pen, I went outside for a solo walk to the marina. As I looked out over the changing colors of the Bay at sunset, the sky took on a pink so drenched with family sentiment that it could have done for a Hallmark card.

When nature seems to validate human purposes, the literary folk call this “the pathetic fallacy.” By that they mean, the coincidence is the effect of mere chance. In contrast, New Age people will say, “the universe likes me!”

Not all such examples have the Hallmark colors. One fall day, the colleague who had introduced me to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras remarked memorably, about the man with whom he was studying Hatha Yoga, “The sonovabitch has reached the lower stages of Samadhi”[liberation].   Seeing my curiosity, my colleague eventually introduced me to “the sonovabitch.” The three of us met at a café in the Village. His teacher’s energy was almost palpable – and seductive to an unpleasant degree. I told my colleague that I never wanted to meet his yoga teacher again. The man had some sort of intensified natural power and was ready and able to misuse it.

Could he make it rain? I don’t know about that, but if it did rain, he could make that work for him.

After the attacks of 9/11, I happened to see some film footage, purportedly of Osama bin Laden with his cohort of followers. They were congratulating each other and “the Shaikh” for the quasi-musical precision with which the assignment, to kill three thousand of us, had been accomplished. Osama bin Laden recalled that, a few days before the attack, a follower who was not privy to the plan announced that he’d dreamt about a plane crashing into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. The Shaikh had been alarmed lest the dreamer inadvertently reveal the secret plan. After the events of 9/11, however, bin Laden took obvious pleasure in the reported dream, as evidence that his plan enjoyed supernatural support.

Clearly,

when you’re hot, you’re hot and when you’re not, you’re not,

but coincidences don’t always foster a good outcome or discourage a bad one.

Kierkegaard was right. There are such things as ordeals — where a certain course of action seems only faintly better than its alternatives – where the best you can do is examine the available evidence and go forward – where, if you look round to the universe for signs and portents of the magical type —

you don’t have a clue.

Does this mean that favorable coincidences don’t necessarily tell us when we’re on the right track, nor unfavorable coincidences that we’re on the wrong one? At the very least, it means that the right track and the wrong track don’t come with conveniently prefixed labels. Life is too serious for that.

You can be very thin on the ground with clues — and just have to use the best dim lights you have.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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