I agreed to meet my brother Neal in Baltimore sometime before 4:30. But it didn’t turn out that way.
For those who don’t know it, the Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum is a collection of mostly 18th and 19th century art amassed by two brothers and then left to the city. Having spent some time in and around other private collections in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and D.C., I decided to leave home earlier, so I could visit the Walters, which was a few blocks from Neal’s hotel.
To give myself an hour or so at the Walters, I parked my car at around 1:45 near his hotel, walked out to the street to begin the walk to the Walters and–
There Neal was, across the street. We were astonished to see each other, more so that, given all the places we each could be, we would be so close at that instant.
Sitting at home on a shelf is a book entitled Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence, by Marlboro College Emeritus Professor Joseph Mazur. In the book Mazur provides the math that shows that coincidences are not as rare or nearly impossible as we would believe. After my brother and I embraced, I began thinking of the Mazur’s math to dissuade myself of the notion that fate, or a nod from God, as we wandered into a nearby drug store to purchase some toiletries he forgot to pack.
I imagined Mazur telling me that a Casablanca response (from the famous Humphrey Bogart film, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”) isn’t quite correct. Neal came to Baltimore to attend a convention at a hall about five blocks away from his hotel, so it is very likely that he’d spend most of his time within those five blocks, especially on streets that connected him to his hotel. I had parked on the same block as his hotel. It is immediately likely that we would find each other on that corner than if we had been anywhere within the city limits.
Apparent coincidences are explicable, understandable and more to do with our brain’s tendency to “connect the dots,” that is, find patterns in discrete phenomena. When we don’t see a pattern, or don’t understand how likely events may be, we presume that fate or luck or some supernatural force has determined the outcome.
Especially when the outcome is positive.
We spent much of the afternoon catching up. Having just turned 60 (I’m older by 2 and 1/2 years), he told me how disturbed he from recently visiting one of his best friends from college. His friend was the same age: 60, but now permanently confined to a nursing home because of Alzheimer’s Disease.
I agreed with him that 60 was too young to be incapacitated by this terrible, irreversible mental decline, especially because this friend had suffered for much of his life but had always remained cheerful and upbeat, even now, as his memory of current and distant experiences became no more lasting than a wisp of steam.
We ended at that uneasy question: why do bad things happen to good people who did nothing to bring them about?
The Zen people say we suffer when we become “attached” to ideas of good and bad. Give up attachments, give up the sense of identify that isolates you and life is…what it is.
An infamous answer is in the Book of Job, in which Job, a good man in all respects, is tortured by God to prove a point. After God restores Job to good health and fortune, Job demands why? God’s response is “where were you when I made the world?”
Or, as a rabbi I know put it, “this is above your pay grade.” That is, you’re part of a larger plan that you have no right, or reason to understand.
Science would find genetic causes, or, as some research as indicated, dietary indulgences. How could so many of those who died of the medieval plagues know that their suffering had nothing to do with good deeds, or bad, but proximity to contaminated water, fleas and rats?
And yet, scientific explanations are not final. As soon as an apparent cause is revealed, new complexities challenge that finding. Also, science is not always done well. Breathing radioactive air was once thought to be a cure for respiratory ailments. If a portion of your brain wasn’t functioning properly, a lobotomist would eagerly open your skull and scoop the bad stuff out. Inept research in the 1950s led to a “fear of fat” in the American diet. One generation’s miracle drug–thalidomide, opiod painkillers, etc.–can have horrendous consequences that initial tests did not identify.
Alas, the explanations, for both the seeming miracle of finding Neal across a street at a time when neither of us expected to see the other, and the undeserved suffering of his friend, did not satisfy. Why is it in life that we feel blessed one day, cursed the next, especially when we “know” better?
If the answer is above my pay grade, how do I get a raise?