Archive for June 8, 2007

What are the Chances?

June 8, 2007


And those bizarre, one-in-a-million coincidences that seem impossible to explain are going to happen somewhere, to someone. Occasionally they’ll happen to you.

Derren Brown, Tricks of the Mind

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

I’m not just talking about my wife, I’m talking about my life! I can’t seem to get that through to you! I’m not just talking about one person, I’m talking about everybody! I’m talking about form, I’m talking about content, I’m talking about inter-relationships! I’m talking about God, the devil, hell, heaven! Do you understand, Finally?

Harding, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


I anticipate that this post may be slightly longer than the average, so please bear with me. I’m not sure whether a point will become apparent as I write. At present, the point seems to hang slightly beyond the reach of my fumbling articulation. However, if it all ends up in a chaotic mess, then, well, maybe that’s important in itself.

Recently, I’ve been reading Tricks of the Mind by bearded mentalist Derren Brown. I’ve just finished it. It’s a fascinating, not to mention challenging, read. I was reading it on the bus home from work on Monday, and he was talking about the nature of coincidence. His thesis, essentially, is that coincidences are really just those chance events which stick in the memory and are ascribed greater significance than other chance events.

 This struck a chord with me: earlier that day, two (and only two) new patients had been referred to me, from separate sources. A quick perusal of their respective addresses revealed that they were next-door neighbours. This sort of thing tends to make one look twice. On one level, it seems remarkable. But of course, it isn’t any less likely than any other two addresses appearing on the respective referral forms. It’s just that the latter scenario would never make it into a blog post.

You see, stuff is happening all the time. Most of it is unremarkable. That which happens to be remarkable is remembered at the expense of that which isn’t. Therefore, we over-estimate the frequency of the remarkable, forgetting that nothing, like something, happens everywhere. As I sat there on the bus, I started thinking about whether Derren Brown had the right idea.

As I write, I seem to recall putting together a post on this very subject. What caused me to put finger to keyboard in that instance? The fact that every single one of my patients turned up that day, the first ‘full house’ in over a year. It hasn’t happened again since, until today. What a coincidence.

Anyway, I hopped off the bus at Lothian Road and made my way down to the Exchange to catch the next one. And as I was on my way, a cursory pat of my various pockets revealed that I was walletless. After a repeated check of all possible pockets, pouches and orifices, I realised that it might still be on the bus from which I had recently alighted.

I took a moment to set my face into the expression of steely determination which seems to benefit the sprinter, and took off. I eventually caught up with it at the Mound. I was very pleased with myself. I staggered on board, taking a moment to explain my predicament to the driver via the medium of flailing hand gestures and assorted panting. Truth be told, I rather expected that having managed to catch the bus again, the wallet would still be on it. It’s quite hard to explain, but I almost felt like having negotiated half the length of Princes Street, it was only right that it should be there. That I was somehow entitled to find it, and that this was the way it would all work out. Naturally, it wasn’t there.

It is an extremely long walk from the Lothian Road to where I live. You’ll remember the day I lost my bus card, and the consternation it caused? This time, I didn’t have the luxury of paying with money instead. All my cards, money and a little bit of my soul were in the wallet, see? 

Anyway, I began to trudge home. Knowing how long it was going to take, and imagining the usurper of my wallet was already making extravagant purchases on Amazon with my debit card, I thought: ‘wouldn’t it be excellent to find a pound on the ground, with which I could get a bus home?’. I prayed that I would find one, but find one I did not. It seems you just can’t get a coincidence when you really need one.

An hour-and-a-half later, I was home. Once I cancelled all my cards (enlisting the help of Mrs H whenever I was told I ‘didn’t have the authority’), I made a mental list of everything that would need to be sorted out if the wallet didn’t materialise. While I was doing so, Mrs H told me that she’d received a text from Arnold Clark (our mechanic of choice) reminding her that the car was due a service. Apparently, the text arrived as she was driving past that very branch of Arnold Clark on the way home from work.

Anyway, the next day, I got an email from the bank. Someone had handed the wallet in. I phoned the receptionist at the bank, who said that I could pop in to collect it at my convenience. So I did. And when I got there, I was greeted by a familiar face. The receptionist and I, it turned out, share the same bus back from work every day.

Now, all this is very strange. At the same time as I am pondering the nature of ‘coincidences’, they seem to be happening all the time. Is it just because I’m looking out for and remembering them? And if there really has been an increase in ‘coincidences’ (conjunctions of events that seem meaningful to me) what does that mean? Of all the people thinking these sort of thoughts, at least one of us is likely to perceive an increase in these ‘coincidences’ at the same time. Perhaps that’s what’s happened to me.

Or is Someone trying to tell me something?