randomness, synchronicity, & the law of attraction

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Having an "examined life" means grappling with some pretty big questions: 

How much of life is truly within our control, and how much is left to chance and luck? Are coincidences just random, or is there a deeper meaning? If even bad things “happen for a reason,” why does one child with cancer die while another has a miraculous recovery? Is it random, or is the former burdened with bad karma from a past life (or shitty luck, or parents who didn't pray as hard)?! Do people just say "things happen for a reason" because they need some kind of explanation or meaning for horrible/unfair things that happen?

Obviously, this can become a highly charged discussion, as these are topics that connect to our most fundamental beliefs about our place in the world — and often, to our deepest pains, and our religious and/or spiritual beliefs.

In writing this post, I hope to engage in meaningful discussion about these concepts and questions, whether you agree or disagree with some of the opinions I share. 

Coincidence, Synchronicity, and Destiny

I have always been fascinated by coincidences. I adore the movie I Heart Huckabees, and my favorite episode of This American Life is all about great coincidence stories. I’ve experienced some gasp-worthy coincidences in my short time already, and heard tales of others’ jaw-droppingly-crazy coincidences. But just because a coincidence happens doesn’t mean there’s anything more to it, right? Well, maybe… and maybe not.

In the 1920’s, Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung was the first to coin the term “synchronicity,” which he defined as “meaningful coincidences.” To illustrate this definition, let's look at an example from Jungian contributor Marie-Louise von Franz in the book, Man and His Symbols:

"If an aircraft crashes before my eyes as I am blowing my nose, this is a coincidence of events that has no meaning. It is simply a chance occurrence of a kind that happens all the time. But if I bought a blue frock and, by mistake, the shop delivered a black one on the day one of my near relatives died, this would be a meaningful coincidence. The two events are not causally related, but they are connected by the symbolic meaning that our society gives to the color black."

Some of the more metaphysically-minded folks go so far as to say that “there’s no such thing as coincidence,” or that "all coincidences are meaningful.” To me, it seems inherent in that idea that there is some “greater plan,” fate, destiny — that “everything happens for a reason" and the synchronistic events are lining up to keep the plan on-course… and then what of free will?

Personally? I believe that meaningful coincidences can happen, but I do not believe that everything happens for a reason.

I just cannot get on board with the idea that a child being abused “happened for a reason," even if that child is provided the opportunity to work through the trauma and become a functional adult who gives back to the world and perhaps to children who have had to overcome similar adversity.

Still, for some reason I am compelled to attribute meaning to coincidence.Perhaps it’s my fascination with the mystical, the desire to believe in a little old fashioned magic, or in parallel realities (a la Sliding Doors).

Why the Law of Attraction is Problematic

I struggle with much of the premise of the “Law of Attraction” (LoA) for similar reasons. LoA has exploded in popularity over the past decade since Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret was published, though was around long before that. At its most basic, LoA states that “like attracts like.”

Sure, I get the core concept here. Of course, if you spend your time and energy fostering positive, optimistic thoughts and beliefs, you’re more likely to be motivated to take the actions in your life that contribute to positive outcomes —especially compared to the different actions you're likely to take if you're stewing in self-criticism, helplessness, and hopelessness. But the “absolute” nature of LoA (kind of inherent in it being called a “law," like it’s somehow on par with the law of gravity) raises what I consider to be some pretty damn problematic scenarios.

LoA evangelists Esther and Jerry Hicks write:

"As you begin to understand—or better stated, as you begin to remember—this powerful Law of Attraction, the evidence of it that surrounds you will be easily apparent, for you will begin to recognize the exact correlation between what you have been thinking about and what is actually coming into your experience. Nothing merely shows up in your experience. You attract it—all of it. No exceptions.

Because the Law of Attraction is responding to the thoughts that you hold at all times, it is accurate to say that you are creating your own reality. Everything that you experience is attracted to you because the Law of Attraction is responding to the thoughts that you are offering.”

No exceptions? Really? How does this not evoke victim-blaming? So, a woman who was raped must have been putting negative vibes into the universe, right? And the kid who gets beat by his Dad just had too many Debbie Downer thoughts, huh? As I was writing this, I googled “Law of Attraction childhood abuse” and was surprised actually at how few posts / articles out there mentioned this completely blatant logical flaw. Oh but don’t worry, one LoA proponent had the perfect explanation!

"It is not healthy to think of the law of attraction with regards to child abuse in the human terms of 'they brought it upon themselves.' Instead, what is accurate is to say that everything which ever happens to anyone child or otherwise, is an exact match to the energetic vibration they hold. Quite often, children choose into situations where they are influenced into the choice of picking up and therefore adopting negative energetic vibrations from the environment around themselves.”

Okayyyy, and that’s not the same as “they brought it on themselves” how, exactly? Oy ve. (Sidebar: apparently the author of that article, Teal Swan, is a survivor of childhood abuse. So, I most certainly can’t claim to understand her unique experiences, but I do find this particular viewpoint troubling.)

Also while doing that search, I came across Jonathan Fields’ “I’ve Got a Secret: The Law of Attraction is a Lie” blog post from several years back. I really dig Jonathan’s group, Good Life Project, and particularly the GLP Radio podcast — and this blog post just gave me one more reason to like him.

Again, in some scenarios, I can see how “what you put out into the universe is what you get back” can be a valid concept to a point— but I cannot possibly believe that this direct causality is always at play.

I might very well put out my best talent and effort, and still not achieve the specific goal I was working for. And I just don't buy that this always means I had some "negative vibrations" that I was unaware of or in denial about. If it “means” anything, it could be that my best effort wasn’t quite enough for what was needed, that a gatekeeper was biased toward a different alternative for some reason, or just plain old bad luck.

The Relief of Randomness

Some people might find randomness disheartening or scary. I actually find it to be somewhat of a relief. Bad things happen, and good things happen. To all kinds of people.

It’s the yin and yang of life — and as we are blessed to be given the opportunity of this human experience, we must accept the terms and conditions that state: “There will be beauty and love. There will also be heartbreaking grief and hurt.”

We can strive to create a better world to live in by bettering our own lives, one simple action at a time. Random bad things will still happen, but more good things will be happening, too. And the more love and kindness there is, the easier the pain and betrayal are to bear.

I’m glad that I don’t ever have to have this all figured out. I’m just enjoying the journey.

And in the meantime, I’ll delight in coincidences.

I'll ascribe meaning to some as “spiritual guideposts” of sorts, and shrug others off as happenstance. Does this make in inconsistent or idealistic? Perhaps, but it's the best I can do for now, and part of why I am inviting a conversation around these ideas. 

I’ll think positive thoughts to support me on my ongoing quest of building an awesome life, and I’ll continue to unapologetically roll my eyes when I hear the words "Law of Attraction." 

What about you? Do you make meaning out of coincidences? What do you make of the whole "Law of Attraction" thing, and of synchronicity? 

And if you don't already have it, make sure to get your free download of my mind-body-spirit guided meditation — where I lead you through the kind of visualizations that actually CAN positively impact your thoughts and actions — totally sans victim-blaming. ;)

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.