I’ve never felt comfortable interpreting my life’s events. When someone suggests that my alarm clock not going off was meant to teach me a certain lesson, that “there is no such thing as coincidence,” I cringe. It’s not that I shouldn’t learn a lesson, but that it feels presumptuous to interpret such an event as providence, presumptuous to determine with such confidence why something happened.
Yet as ridiculous as it may feel to interpret a small happening as providential, I admit it can feel similarly ridiculous to declare every circumstance coincidental. That is certainly the case with a recent incident involving my father-in-law.
My father-in-law spends much of his time in one of three places in his office at home: lying on the floor, lying on the sofa, or sitting in his rocking chair. The piles of papers and books that cover every inch of the desk amply prove he never sits there. Yet in this instance, he sat at his desk, his phone to his ear, waiting for a human being to pick up.
Despite the 20-degree temperature outside, the room was warm and pleasant, filled with light from the four casement windows. My in-laws were the only ones home; the radio, TV, and computers were silent. Then the second window to my father-in-law’s right exploded, propelling shards of glass across his office.
Given the angle of his seat to the window, he could not have chosen a safer place to sit. Twelve feet across the room, four-inch shards of glass impaled the sofa, the drywall, and a wooden picture frame. In the middle of the room, two panes worth of glass rained upon the open magazine and scattered books. In the back of the rocking chair, near the window, and just below where my father-in-law’s head might have been, glass tore holes in the suede backing. Thus, his position was as perfect as it was unlikely.
Like me, many are uncomfortable interpreting stories of coincidence. A distinctly American form of this discomfort reaches at least as far back as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in The Scarlet Letter wonders about our penchant for interpreting natural phenomena as personal signs. When Arthur Dimmesdale is suffering in guilt and standing upon the scaffold alongside Hester Prynne, he looks to the midnight sky and sees a giant, red A. Such a case as this, Hawthorne asserts, “could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man…had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul’s history and fate!” Hawthorne sees in Dimmesdale’s interpretation arrogance; only vanity could believe the entire universe revolves around him. And similarly, even though I view God as creator and sustainer—a personal being providentially guiding creation—I chafe at the idea of interpreting every coincidence as a kind of handy providence. Something about the way it’s applied strikes me as off-kilter, like a too-convenient exposition of a poem.
Yet as self-conscious as I might be about my vanity, coincidence still intrigues me. This American Life explored the phenomena of coincidence and our attitudes toward it memorably, and while some of the incidents they share occupy the realm of the bizarre, host Sarah Koenig admits she found it difficult to remain skeptical in the face of these stories. Though she began a skeptic, she ended up
“agreeing with this one woman I interviewed about her coincidence: she knew her story could probably be explained away with statistics and probability, but she said, “There’s just a poetry to things like this when they happen. There’s some kind of beauty in it. There’s meaning in the noticing it at all.”
As This American Life suggests, the more random and strange the coincidence, the easier it is to see the poetry behind it. No matter how skeptical we are, poetic coincidence can provide the opportunity to see a bit of providence in the world.
After the window exploded, my father-in-law’s next sight was equally shocking: in the middle of his office floor, an adult turkey convulsed violently, feathers scattering everywhere.
We initially speculated that the turkeys, a species of limited aerial ability, were using the hill above the house as a launching ramp, enabling them to reach their roosts in the ponderosas behind it. This turkey failed to attain the goal.
Whatever the cause, as I consider how narrowly my father-in-law escaped injury, I keep returning to Problems with Hurricanes, a poem by Victor Hernandez Cruz:
A campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it’s not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I’ll tell you he said:
it’s the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.
How would your family
feel if they had to tell
The generations that you
got killed by a flying
The campesino’s question has always struck me as funny. Poetic coincidence is often something to be thankful for, but it can also be humorous. Now, in my gratitude that my father-in-law was not hurt by this fowl kamikaze, I find it even funnier, with my laughter acting as a celebration for his safety.
Still, questions linger. Is it arrogant for me to celebrate my father-in-law’s seemingly random moment at his desk? To celebrate his safety as providential? If I celebrate his safety as providential, am I suggesting he is more important to the one who determines providence than those who have coincidentally suffered? Am I as arrogant as Arthur Dimmesdale, interpreting the movement of the galaxy as part of the text of my life?
Despite my reservations, I think not. My sincere gratitude arises not from arrogance but from humility. It admits that apart from providence, my father-in-law has no protection, even from random natural phenomenon like turkey bombers. My own interpretive gratitude, then, is not an attempt to explain the ways of providence, but an attempt to accept them.
To the fowl and her relatives, the incident appears far less coincidental. My father-in-law put her out of her misery as quickly as possible, spent 12 hours cleaning his office, and had the window repaired. Two weeks later, with no one in the room, another turkey propelled herself through the glass, dying on impact. Clearly, we now realize, the birds are seeing something in the window and diving for it. So my father-in-law has covered the windows with black plastic and blue tape. While grateful for providential protection, he is not so arrogant as to demand it again.