I recently met up with some friends. It was a good meeting and I’m very glad that I went. But as I reflected on it afterwards I realised that the most significant thing about it for me was a chance remark that led to a brief conversation about something only loosely connected with the declared purpose of the meeting. I think that this is an example of what Gert Dumbar defines as ‘serendipity’: “find[ing] something that you haven’t been looking for but which changes everything that went before and comes after. The English word serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole, who used it for the first time in 1754 in a letter. Walpole described the adventures of the Three Persian princes of Serendip. ‘By chance and shrewdness they discovered things which they were not looking for. They looked for one thing and found another. They were very surprised about this themselves.’ ” Dumbar links serendipity with creativity, and I agree.
Serendipity reminds me of synchronicity, which Jung defines as ‘a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.’ And Arthur Koestler as ‘the seemingly accidental meeting of two unrelated causal chains in a coincidental event which appears both highly improbable & highly significant.’ I have experienced synchronicity quite often and been very grateful for it. Its not the same as serendipity but it comes from the same stable.
For example, some months ago I was thinking about something and remembered a book I’d read years ago but had completely forgotten about, and had no recollection of its content. My intuition told me that this forgotten book might have something helpful to say about the matter I was thinking about, and so it did. Indeed, I found the writer so stimulating that I checked what else he had written and learnt that he’d written another book about a separate subject that I was also interested in. I ordered and read it and was glad that I had. In passing the writer made mention of a painting by Salvador Dali, a large print of which I had once owned and that had meant a lot to me. I wondered what had become of it and realised that I had no idea. ‘I have a feeling that I could usefully have another look at an image of that painting’ I thought to myself. The very next day a friend offered me a small block print of it that they no longer wanted. Of course I gratefully accepted it. I have looked and it speaks powerfully to me.
This morning I woke up in the middle of the night and found myself thinking about the serendipity example, my story of the Dali print, and the connection between them. I knew that I should write about them and that the wise course of action would be to get up and go downstairs and do so immediately while the thought was fresh in my mind. This happens to me not infrequently: I wake up in the night from a dream or with an insight and know that the wise thing is to get up and write it down straight away. I always resist, telling myself that I’ll remember it just as well in the morning, although experience has taught me that that’s not true, and anyway isn’t a nice warm bed too good a thing to abandon! So there’s an internal struggle, before I get up and act wisely. So it was, some time after five o’clock this morning and here I am at six sat at my ipad writing.
I think I know why I woke up thinking as I did. In a few days time I set out on an eleven day journey and in preparation was reflecting on it yesterday afternoon. I noticed that there are a couple of items on my programme that stood out as being slightly at odds with the declared purpose of the journey, and I wondered if they might lead to experiences of serendipity or synchronicity? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Maybe others will. Maybe nothing will. Who knows? Certainly I don’t and can’t.
Jean S Boleyn wrote that “In the experience of a synchronistic event, instead of feeling ourselves to be separated & isolated entities in a vast world we feel the connection to others & the universe at a deep & meaningful level” and much the same might be said about serendipity events. They both suggest to me that there is a strong undercurrent in life over which we have no conscious control and that it is friendly and trustworthy, and indeed essential if we want to thrive. We mostly exist by splashing about on the surface of life but sometimes the undercurrent comes to the surface & we experience it. R S Thomas describes such a moment in his poem ‘The Bright Field’:
“I have seen the sun break through
To illuminate a small field
For a while, and gone my way
And forgotten it. But that was the pearl
Of great price, the one field that had
The treasure in it. I realize now
That I must give all that I have
To possess it.
Life is not hurrying
On to a receding future, nor hankering after
An imagined past. It is the turning
Aside like Moses to the miracle
Of the lit bush, to a brightness
That seemed as transitory as your youth
Once, but is the eternity that awaits you.”
Pain and suffering can cause us to sink beneath the surface and we panic as we become aware that we are out of our depth and sinking, before to our surprise the undercurrent bears us up again. Denise Levertov writes of that experience in her poem ‘Suspended’:
“I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.”
I have learnt over the years that ‘real life’ frequently happens in the undercurrent to what I plan, and that therefore there is wisdom in planning as little as possible, and when I need to, to try and do so with a light touch, with spaces left for the unexpected, and time factored in for reflection on what’s been happening, so that I recognise ‘real life’ when it happens, trust it and float with it rather than ignore it or swim against it: “You cant push the river” as van Morrison wrote.
All this is rather counter cultural in a society and a church that’s fearful and hence increasingly bureaucratic, where qualifications have to be shown, boxes ticked and due processes followed. I’m sure there’s a place for all those things, but they have a deadening effect on creativity. Meanwhile, I’m going back to bed.