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by William H. Benson

August 27, 2008

     Coincidences, moments of serendipity, and successful turnarounds surprise us. Our intuition expects one thing, but suddenly when we perceive the reality of what is transpiring, we are surprised. Our journeys through life seem a long stream of random events, and so coincidences among those seemingly unrelated happenings can easily befuddle our intuition.

     In a room of forty-five people, there is a 95% chance that at least two of those people will have the same birthday—same day and month. In a room of only twenty-three, the odds are an even fifty-fifty. If Mark Twain and Winston Churchill had walked into that hypothetical room, they would have proven that statistic, for both were born on November 30.

  1. S. Lewis, the noted Oxford professor and writer, and President John F. Kennedy both died on November 22, 1963, the former of natural causes, and the latter by an assassin’s bullet.

     Much has been made of the coincidences between Lincoln and Kennedy. Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846 and Kennedy in 1946. Lincoln won the Presidency in 1860 and Kennedy in 1960. One of Lincoln’s secretaries was named Kennedy, and one of Kennedy’s was named Lincoln. Lincoln’s Vice-President, a Johnson named Andrew, was born in 1808, and Kennedy’s Vice-President, also a Johnson, but named Lyndon, was born in 1908. Lincoln’s assassin—John Wilkes Booth—went by three names, as did Kennedy’s assassin—Lee Harvey Oswald. Booth was born in 1839 and Oswald in 1939.

     These coincidences surprise us, but in a long list of data that present people’s life events—especially those of two Presidents, one would be more surprised if there were not a number of coincidences.

     Boethius, a sixth-century philosopher, said, “Chance, too, which seems to rush along with slack reins is bridled and governed by law.”

     The underlying theme of Michael Crichton’s fictional novel Jurassic Park, is that life finds ways of jumping over the boundaries that we humans think we have solidly constructed. Crichton’s character Ian Malcolm, a mathematician with a specialty in chaos theory, predicts at the beginning of the novel that a park for dinosaurs, holding a Tyrannosaurus Rex and velociraptors, will self-destruct, probably due to human error, and he is correct. Those life forms will not be contained.

     Scientists estimate that life on our planet began 3.5 billion years ago with the development of single-celled microorganisms, and about a half billion years ago multi-celled organisms—plants and animals—began to interact to create fertile ecosystems. As surprising as those revolutions were, the most startling was the origin of human consciousness, when life became aware of itself.

     Richard Leakey, the paleontologist, said, “The sense of self-awareness we each experience is so brilliant it illuminates everything we think and do.”

     Thanksgiving is upon us. That those Puritan Separatists could celebrate a feast in 1621 in New Plymouth was mainly due to the kindly assistance of Tisquantum, called Squanto, a Patuxet Indian. Captured and sold into slavery by English traders a decade before, he crossed the Atlantic six times before returning to his village to discover that his family and friends were all dead. Those single-celled organisms that carry smallpox had done what they were supposed to do—sustain and replicate themselves, and in the process, Squanto’s tribe was wiped out.

     One historian has surmised that Squanto probably spoke better English than did any other Native American in North America at that time, and it was pure coincidence that along the entire North Atlantic seaboard, the Puritan Pilgrims happened to pick the former location of Squanto’s village to build their town of Plymouth, and that Squanto was there to help them. Coincidence, random event, and Providential care came together at that first Thanksgiving for those English pioneers.

     At a Thanksgiving meal, we seat ourselves beside our family and friends at a table loaded with food. It is a day we cease from our normal human trait of aggressively striving to further ourselves, and instead we pause to join family at mealtime to think and to thank. For we, among all of life’s myriad forms, and because of our consciousness, which shines so brightly within us, can pause for a day to reflect and thank our Creator for our food, our sustenance; and for our family, the replication of our species.

     Have a great Thanksgiving!