Photo by Gaetan Lee
Yesterday afternoon, I set out on foot to take care of some errands, wanting to soak in the sunshine and relative warmth.
As I walked, my mind wandered, as it is prone to do anyway, and even more so when I’m walking. I must have subconsciously recognized a small aching emptiness in me—one that I identify with my need for female companionship—because I started thinking about my friend Susan. I thought how nice it would be to sit down with her and talk. I even wondered if I should walk by her house on my way home from the post office and bank.
Not two minutes later, about five blocks from my house, I turned the corner and there was Susan. She was less than half a block away, walking straight towards me, pushing her one-year-old twins in their stroller through the slush.
I was so surprised, that it took me a few seconds to realize it was actually her. It took her a few seconds to recognize me, too, mostly because she was lost in thought, distressed about some news she had just received. We were both heading downtown, so we started walking together, Susan venting, me listening (and the babies doing that great thing babies tend to do in strollers: sitting and staring).
It suddenly occurred to me: Meeting Susan on that block, at that moment, when we both needed one another, simply couldn’t have been a coincidence.
Why do these non-coincidences happen?
Lots of people have experiences like this. It seems we’re simultaneously awe-struck and a little freaked out when we reflect on something perfect that happened, but could so easily have gone a different way. Sometimes it’s a small gift, like running into a friend at the moment you most need one.
Other times it’s a bigger message delivered at a bigger moment. A friend of mine was in Costa Rica about a year ago when he found out his mother had died. As he was walking the beach with his wife and son, processing his grief, he was compelled to walk toward the water’s edge, pause, and pick up a very ordinary-looking twig. On it, in blue ball point pen, someone had written—in English, mind you—”There is no love greater than a mother’s love for her child.”
Why was that stick there, on that deserted beach? Why was he there? And why did he see it, and bend down to pick it up?
OK, let’s pause here. Are any of you starting to feel a tiny bit nervous? Like any second I’m going to start talking about angels or destiny or something?
You can relax. I really don’t know what to think of these stories, or what to call that “thing” that mysteriously happens in our lives from time to time.
All I can do is review the few things I do and don’t know about these moments, and see if any of you have thoughts and ideas to add to the mix.
What I know:
- In case you were wondering, I do happen have more than one friend in town. For some reason, at that moment, I was thinking about Susan (who happens to be someone I only get to see once a month or so).
- There are numerous routes I can take from my house to the business district, about 10 blocks away. There are many routes Susan could take from her house to the bakery, where she was headed. There are many hours in a day, when we each could have set out on our errands. I could have easily decided I had too much work to do, and Susan could have decided it was too much trouble to bundle her babies up for an outing.
- Clearly, I believe there’s something bigger going on—it’s not luck or coincidence doing its random work in our lives. You can point to “the stars” or thank “the gods” or call it “serendipity,” but something seems to orchestrate these moments in our lives, from time to time. I happen to think it’s God with a capital G, so that’s how I’ll reference it. If that makes you uncomfortable, feel free to swap in something else. I don’t want to lose anyone in the conversation.
- Even though he could, God doesn’t make us do certain things, or make us walk in certain directions. In other words, I don’t believe this life is one big puppet show.
What I don’t know (well, there’s plenty, but here’s a taste):
- If God is in the business of making our paths cross with friends, and strategically placing message-delivering twigs, how does he decide when to make something like that happen, and when to not bother?
- How are we supposed to feel about a God that steps in and takes care of things so perfectly at some moments, but seems to leave us hanging at others? Or about a God who seems to disproportionately make poetic things happen for some people more than others?
- Do we have a role in ushering in these moments? Is it possible that moments like these are always on the brink of happening, and we just need to be awake and respectful of the nudgings? Could it be our responsibility to be open, and pay attention?
That’s all I’ve got right now. Which is why I really need you to chime in. What do you think?