Friday, 18 March 2011

Serendipity and Synchronicity

I've always enjoyed a close affinity with Serendipity, both the word itself and the idea it embraces: defined as "the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way", or from the OED as "the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident". It is considered to be one of the hardest words to translate from English into other languages. It's also become remarkably popular. It appears in the top ten of a number of different favourite word lists. I'm clearly not alone in feeling this affinity with Serendipity. I think there are some superficial reasons for this, but also some deeper ones.

On the surface, the sharing of its first two syllables with serene gives it a kind of calm and peaceful connotation, while the ending gives it a playful quality. It's a rather warm and cuddly word in sound and shape. But the source of its popularity surely goes much deeper. An encounter with the serendipitous is a magical experience! The demands of living in the modern world have largely snuffed out any magical, mystical dimension to life, so Serendipity seems to provide a tenuous thread linking us in to something bigger than our individual separate lives. It hints at a connectedness to a deeper reality - a kind of wiring into the bigger pattern of events. Everyone can take something out of Serendipity. It can be construed in so many ways, for some as the work of God, for others perhaps as the unfolding of the Zeitgeist from the universal to the personal. Each person will have their own private understanding. Just about the only thing I feel sure about is that very few people will dismiss Serendipity, in their heart, as just the result of pure coincidence ... which, of course, is exactly what it is, isn't it? Just a quirk of simple, uncomplicated coincidence.

Which brings me to Synchronicity, this second favourite word of mine: defined as "the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection". In this sense I take Synchronicity to be more than pure coincidence. This definition hints at a deeper causal connection to coincidental events, one operating beneath the level of the discerning, thinking mind. Perhaps this is why Synchronicity holds such a strong fascination for us. These kind of deep coincidences are to be found at the heart of the plots of so many great novels. We may no longer so obviously and unambiguously see coincidences as messages, but when we stumble across a coincidence in our lives there is still some part of us that inevitably gets pulled in to search for its meaning.

Whether it be at a conscious or an unconscious level, there is a deeply felt human desire to see patterns in nature. It is something the human brain is very good at, almost too good indeed. We can see pictures in a fire, shapes in the clouds. We can see things that are not really there. From a scientific viewpoint it is natural to argue that we will always be able to pluck order out of chaos in this way, to create form out of formlessness, to crystallise coincidence from the random substrate of the world we live in. It's a mathematical inevitability. But then you experience two events coming together, the timing and portent of which seems so utterly improbable, and you cannot help yourself asking the question: is coincidence simply the natural probabilistic outcome of so much possibility in the world, or is it Synchronicity, a manifestation of some deeper, sub-conscious, non-material underpinning to the totality of our experience?

Ask me at one moment and I will answer with Reason and tell you that it is just down to the mathematics of complexity. Ask me at another and I will answer with Intuition and be tempted to tell you that, as Jung postulated, it is the result of us all being networked at an unconscious level into the one and the same source. I vacillate between these two positions on a continuous basis. Because of my scientific background I am far more comfortable stating the former. But my raw emotional experience of the world does not allow me to dismiss the latter.

I have spent a lot of time struggling to come to terms with this specific dialectic. It encapsulates very clearly the tension we have to resolve between the rational and emotional sides of our nature. I try to discuss the issue in my own head but there is always this problem of communication. The language each side uses is so different that there seems to be no opportunity for any meaningful exchange. Neither can find a form of expression that makes sense to the other. It's exasperating!

Serendipity, as the experience of Synchronicity, is where perhaps we can most obviously feel the intersection of these two worlds of perception. But it's never black and white. And I can never bring the whole picture fully into focus. I believe we are destined, as human beings, to never be able to resolve this blurred image of reality into sharpness. Both ways of looking at the world are needed to get the best possible picture, but it will only ever be a partial view.

If I disengage my mathematical brain then I start to see Serendipity as a guide, and I try to read the messages that are brought to me. I start to believe that we can tune into the Universe in this way. Serendipity becomes a regular companion rather than just an occasional but always wonderful visitor. This is what I have begun to notice this last few weeks as I've started this journey and opened my eyes to the world again. This is what I feel now. But later, once I get back into work mode, debugging the code I wrote last week, it is more than likely that I'll read this back and think it's all a load of nonsense. It would be much easier to live in just one side of my head ... but that would make for a much less interesting life!

This is an abridged version of a piece originally posted to my Goodreads Blog.

1 comment:

  1. I definitely subscribe to the Dirk Gently philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things. Maybe not quite to the extent that he has it (I don't have an eagle in my hallway for a start) but too many things tend to drop into place for me not to believe it.

    On the other hand, we have a friend who is a psychologist and has written a best selling book about luck. He would say that it is entirely self-led and that you create your own luck so if things fall into place for you, it is because you subconsiously cause them to happen. And that is certainly true to an extent, happy optimistic people are much more likely to be helped out by other people and so on.

    I think that you are right and we need to have a balance of both views before we can start to get to the truth. I certainly don't see the two as mutually exclusive. It can be a bit of both.