This week’s episode of one of my favorite podcasts, This American Life, is entirely stories of coincidence. It got me thinking about coincidence and whether I’ve encountered any in my own life. I came up with possibly three examples, but each one questions the definition of a coincidence.
My old friend, The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., defines coincidence as
A notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connection.
But…there’s something a bit more to it, isn’t there? Aren’t coincidences supposed to convey some type of meaning, at least in hindsight? Don’t we use the lack of causal connection to look for some other type of connection, perhaps God stepping in for a moment or the universe righting its course?
I realized that my three coincidences vary on that part. I’m going to share all three of them with you over the next three days and you can decide for yourself. One seems causally impossible though bereft of meaning, one seems unlikely, though possible, but with at least a touch of meaning, and the third is against pretty much all odds and, because of that, meant a lot to me.
Today, the first story. As Ira Glass would say:
Act One: Uncanny
My maternal grandparents, for most of the time I knew them, travelled quite a bit. They had a camper which they would take all over the country and, often, they would have gifts for us grandchildren upon their return. Usually these were small things. I once got a little magnetic chess set, for example. I didn’t know how to play, but I liked the tiny figurines.
But this story involves a deck of cards. Knowing my love of all things outer-space, they’d picked me up a deck of card with that classic picture of Earth as seen from space on the back. They’d come back from Houston, so the cards were fitting. And besides, my cards we much better than my brother’s which had some rodeo guy on the back. For a while I brought these cards with me whenever I knew we might have some time to kill. Until, a few years later, the eight of diamonds turned up missing. I tossed the remaining deck in a drawer somewhere, condemned to end up wherever the lost toys of childhood end up.
This story also involves comic books. I didn’t get many chances to read comics as a kid. We lived about a mile outside of a rural town. I suppose our local pharmacy might have carried them, but even if so I couldn’t just walk up there to read them. And we certainly didn’t have a bookstore. The libraries in the area didn’t carry comics like a lot of public libraries do now. My only real source to fix my comic-book jones was at the barbershop.
The barbershop was in a neighboring town, run by an old man named Earl. While Earl seemed pretty old to me at the time, the farmers whose hair he cut seemed positively ancient. But they had kids and grandkids and, for them, Earl kept a healthy supply of comic books in his shop. My favorites were Batman and The Uncanny X-Men. I would secretly hope on the ride over that there’d be a lot of people ahead of us so I’d have time to catch up.
Years later, after high school and about a decade’s break, I started reading comics again, just X-Men this time. My roommate and I spent a lot of time in local comic-book stores looking through old issues and trying to get good prices. After a few months, I had am impressive collection of The Uncanny X-Men and the newer title, X-Men. I would sit for an hour or two after work and catch up on all the stuff I’d missed. And, if you were reading comics between in the 80s and 90s, you know I’d missed a lot.
One Saturday afternoon, after working at the diner, I was sitting in my room reading some old X-Men issues I’d picked up on a recent trip. I turned a page and a playing card fell out. There was a picture of the Earth from outer space on the back.
My mind was blown. It was completely unbelievable that someone with the same deck had left his card in this old comic book I’d just bought. It boggled the mind. But then I turned the card over. It was, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the eight of diamonds: the very same card that had gone missing from my own deck all those years ago.
What impresses me about this coincidence isn’t that it happened; I can come up a few scenarios that explain it, the card never once leaving Northwest Ohio. But the amount of time that passed – as much as 20 years – amazes me.
But…this coincidence is meaningless. Yes, it was amazing when it happened. Yes, it still gives me goosebumps when I think about it. But there’s no real significance to it other than it being a really cool story.
Tomorrow we’ll examine another coincidence, this one far more likely to happen – though it’s only happened once – and with a bit more meaning behind it. Until then.