#1: The day of coincidences began at around 8:15 am in the International Ballroom of the Washington Hilton. My colleague Hannah and I had just taken a seat for the plenary address — I was attending the Non-Profit Technology Conference, Dan Heath was giving the keynote, and I was not going to miss it — when we struck up a conversation with the women sharing a table with us. One of them looked a tiny bit familiar, but I couldn’t place it. She did, however; she’d taken a class I’d taught on monologue writing several years beforehand.
#2: Not long afterward, as I was sitting in the hallway waiting for a session to start, a woman approached me: “Gwydion,” she said. “Hi. You remember me, don’t you? I used to live in the apartment below you.” And indeed she did. “Funny,” I said to her, “This is the second time to day this has happened to me.”
#3: A few minutes later, I’m introducing her to Hannah, and we all start talking about Minnesota. I happen to mention that my wife’s best friend Ann teaches drama at a private Catholic high school in St. Paul. “Oh, really? Which one?” As it happens, it’s the one Hannah’s father also teaches at. In fact, Hannah’s actually seen a half-dozen of Ann’s productions.
#4: At a party that night, I’m introduced to this guy, and in the course of getting to know him, he tells me he’s from Boulder. “I used to live there, too,” I mention. “In fact, a friend of mine, a guy I’ve known since first grade, still lives there. He owns this bakery you might –” He interrupts me to suggest the very name I had just been about to say. The two men used to play music together.
(Believe it or not, the day actually included a fifth coincidence of a different variety: I won an iPad2. The 2,000 attendees at the conference were all given keys at registration; mine happened to be the one that opened up the lucite box with the iPad2 in it.)
So… I can already imagine that some of you, having read those four coincidences, must be thinking the following: “The universe is trying to tell you something.” If you are, then please: keep it to yourself. I really despise that phrase. The universe is very, very unlikely to be sentient, and if by some bizarre miracle it is, why would something so immense have any need to tell little old me anything? The answer: it wouldn’t.
We are too quick to ascribe meaning to things. We are so desperate for meaning, in fact, that we create it where it doesn’t exist. Lots of people with similar interests whose paths are likely to have crossed before were all in the same hotel; there were undoubtedly many unexpected reunions that day. I talk about Minnesota a great deal, the state having become very important to me during the past decade for a variety of esoteric personal reasons; naturally, my conversations are likely to unearth Minnesota connections. That’s the only real meaning inherent in the day of coincidences.
This impulse to create meaning, on the other hand, explains how stories work, I think. Writers encode them with meanings; readers or listeners decode them to find meaning.
The difference between the two? With stories, the meaning is real, because it’s intentional. It doesn’t happen by accident. Decoding the meaning in a story is a way of connecting with the mind that made the story. Trying to decode the meaning in a random series of events? Don’t bother. No mind made that story; the vicissitudes of randomness did. Don’t read too closely.