What Are The Odds

Recently, I received two phone calls within 5 minutes of one another, both from women with whom I had interacted (one closely over several years, the other only briefly) more than 30 years ago – and with whom I had not had contact since! Further, my connection to each of them involves the criminal (in)justice system with which we have all three been involved in some fashion. I taught college level psychology courses in the New Mexico Penitentiary beginning in 1978. One friend was active with me in a major prison reform project arising from the 1980 riot there. The other – acquaintance rather than friend – went on to do research in criminal justice after we had interacted, and wanted now to talk to me about that continuing interest of hers.
What are the odds?

What are the odds that I would date, in college, a guy whose high school girlfriend was the first cousin of one of my schoolmates from junior high? And what are those odds given that the high school was located in White Plains NY, the junior high in Saigon, Vietnam and the college at Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania. Out on a date in New York City, we walked into the Russian Tea Room and encountered my friend’s parents and his girlfriend’s parents having dinner together.
What are the odds?

For that matter, what are the odds that I would receive a call, more than forty years later, from that junior high friend, as a result of her reading an essay I published in the Swarthmore College Alumni Bulletin? Her son had briefly attended Swarthmore before his death. Clearing out his papers, she found the magazine, and my article, and tracked me down through the College alumni office.

Skeptics may try to answer the question of odds with numbers, while reciting the logical statement that co-occurrence says nothing about causality. In other words, the fact that two or more events occur simultaneously, or in close proximity to one another, means nothing whatsoever about their causal relationship. The events may in fact have a common cause, but they may equally well have no connection of any sort to one another. These skeptics (they may think of themselves, rather, as logical or pragmatic) can be heard to pronounce that it is a fallacy of humanity, to ‘need’ to find meaning in random events.

What are the odds, and do they matter? Perhaps only to those fascinated by coincidences, who have not yet taken a position with regard to the importance and role of causality – or serendipity – in our lives. A good friend of mine reminded me, when I mentioned my ‘what are the odds’ question, that I was expressing a cultural bias. Many cultures – the Navajo for example – do not believe in serendipity, or coincidence, but rather believe all events are linked. The purpose of life is to understand those links and find one’s place within them, and thus to be in balance and harmony – to walk in beauty.

Other traditions also teach that the goal of life is to learn to exist in a space of harmonious balance, often expressed as learning to “Be”. Buddhists practice stilling the mind in order to achieve a state of immediate, present, awareness. Quakers seek ‘the Light Within’ to guide them in manifesting the divine in daily life. The Catholic priest Richard Rohr (founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation) encourages us to live from the center instead of from the edges (the edges being where we define ourselves by ego, by the groups we belong to, or the codes we think everyone should adhere to). The ancient Light and Sound teachings (the poet Rumi was an interpreter of this age-old wisdom, MasterPath is a current expression of them) – these teachings guide followers toward direct awareness of Soul, and the ability to Know, Be and See as a manifestation of the Divine.

To resolve apparent either-or tensions, my teacher in MasterPath speaks of the value of finding “what the opposites have in common.” Thus, a middle road between the skeptics and those who see a connection among all events might be found by asking another question on the order of, “Is this seeming coincidence calling my attention to something I should attend to?”

What the two callers reaching out to me had in common, other than a 30 year gap in our interactions, was a connection to the field of corrections. I have taught college courses in prison, been an activist for prison reform, and I currently offer Alternatives to Violence Project workshops in the New Mexico prison system. Should I be looking at that aspect of myself?

Or does the benefit to me of noticing the conjunction of these two calls lie in a consideration of who I was 30 years ago, in contrast to who I have become since? A third possibility is that the value of reflecting on the calls lies outside myself, in my consideration of the science and logic of coincidence versus the range of belief systems which see systematic connection and order between events.

What are the odds that I’ll discover the ‘real reason’ for this apparent coincidence? Is there such a reason? Does it matter? Probably only if I choose to make it matter. And therein lies the kernel, the import of all the questions – the fact that I can choose how I interpret the events in my life. We each can make such choices, though sometimes it feels like the choice is made for us. Coincidence or meaningful plan, noticed or ignored, how our lives unfold and what we make of our experiences is ultimately a matter of choice. Knowing I am responsible for my circumstances, I can more easily “be”, in harmony with them. I like those odds!

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5 Responses to “What Are The Odds”

  1. Jane Foraker-Thompson Says:

    Being one of the two women friends who contacted Niki after 30 years, who worked in the CJ system and quit my job to work on prison reform, and then had to leave the state because I had become a “hot potato” that no one would hire; I believe we reconnected because of a spiritual connection that had existed back then, and still exists, as we found out. (How’s that for a very long compound sentence?) Though our paths have personally been very different in some outward ways, our spiritual inner paths have brought us, once again, to a very similar place in our view of the world, beliefs, tolerance of diversity, and understanding. It’s no coincidence, it is more like serendipity (depending on how you define it), or fate. I had felt that during the separated years, so I was hopeful of reconnecting and finding a long-lost “sister.” Jane F-T

  2. Ron Maltais Says:

    Hi Niki,

    Well, as I simmer into my summer mode it is nice to see your writing so frequently with me actually having “time” to reflect on your ideas which are always interesting. I have often thought of chance meetings I’ve had with people from my past after 25 or more years. I believe that probability is not the issue; that things like that must happen, and when they do is also critical. beyond that it is all quite mysterious but wonderful. – Words from a card carrying agnostic! hmmm. . .

    Ron

    • chelawriter Says:

      I agree that “the when” of meetings is important. I suspect, also, that we notice certain encounters because they bring something to the surface of our attention that we have been dealing with on a lower level of awareness. And yes, it is wonderfully mysterious.

  3. Khin Says:

    Hi Niki,

    This made me think of a This American Life episode on coincidences. Thought you might enjoy it! http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/489/no-coincidence-no-story

    Khin

    • chelawriter Says:

      Great reference. Will take the time, slowly, to listen to the episodes, and maybe write another essay solely about the ones that have occurred in my own life! Thanks for the feedback. Niki

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