Signs: A New Approach to Coincidence, Synchronicity, Guidance, Life Purpose, and God's Plan, by Robert Perry. Sedona, AZ: Semeion Press, 2009, 206 + ix pp., $14.95 pb (ISBN: 978-0-9822500-0-6).
I read Alan Vaughan's Incredible Coincidence when it came out more than twenty years ago, so I wasn't too surprised when remarkable synchronicities occurred later in my own life.
They were the kind of absurd, laugh-out-loud coincidences that make you think someone up there is having a joke at your expense. But on reflection I wondered if I was meant to see a connection. When I thought about it, I realized there were a whole set of parallels between the two situations, one past and one present. By closely comparing them I reached deep insights about both. It was as if they were two parts of a puzzle: individually confusing and traumatic, but making sense when viewed together, and I learned something about myself in the process.
According to author Robert Perry, this is a significant phenomenon that we would do well to recognize, and which he has described in Signs: A New Approach to Coincidence, Synchronicity, Guidance, Life Purpose, and God's Plan (2009). This excellent and intriguing book gives a great deal to think about.
Perry calls the phenomenon Conjunctions of Meaningfully Parallel Events, or CMPEs. He also uses the handy term 'signs', not in the standard meaning of a single attention-grabbing event, but in the more complex usage of two or more events that share a number of parallels. They are, he believes, deliberate interventions designed to say something meaningful about a situation unfolding in a person's life.
Perry first became aware of signs when at the age of sixteen he started going out with his future wife. Both had recently ended a previous relationship, and it turned out that they had done so at exactly the same time in similar circumstances. The parallels were so numerous and meaningful he knew it could not just be chance. He says: 'I intuitively felt I had just glimpsed the workings of some invisible blueprint for my life. It was hard to shake the feeling that some power beyond the human had stepped in and set me free.'
Another example: When the teaching group that Perry runs needed to improve its game, a member mentioned receiving inner guidance as an image of people working together in a chain. The image seemed to urge teamwork as a means to resolve problems. Perry remarked that this is often termed a 'bucket brigade', where a team fighting a fire, for instance, forms a chain and passes along buckets of water. Minutes after making this observation, a plumbing accident flooded a nearby room, and the team found themselves forming a chain and passing buckets - a stunning coincidence that seemed to confirm the message had been correctly understood.
Often, Perry says, the signs work by caricaturing situations. Feeling guilty at having neglected his family, he went out with his 13-year old son to play Frisbee. At one point the boy lay down on the ground to rest, and Perry amused himself by trying to get the Frisbee to land on him. That evening they watched a Simpsons episode in which Krusty the Clown discovers he has a daughter and takes her to play Frisbee - he lies down and asks her to throw it on him. The matching incidents drew attention to an underlying theme. Krusty is in despair at being a useless father, and for Perry this underlined his own feeling that he hadn't been spending enough time with his kids. The fact that he was being likened to a degenerate clown, who first didn't know he was a father and then discovers he is a terrible father, was not exactly inspirational, but a good example of how the signs caricature things to make a point.
Perry's purpose is twofold, to describe a phenomenon that he believes has great potential value and to show how it can be applied. Here he goes quite a lot further than Vaughan, systematizing the process of observing and interpreting signs, and providing quite sharp detail about what to look for.
But how real is this phenomenon? Does it actually happen, or is there a danger that we are seeing something that isn't there? Even worse, could someone be misled into making a damaging life-changing decision because of an imagined sign?
Years ago, I remember hearing the Cambridge theologian Don Cupitt tetchily insist that it was 'insane' for people to imagine that the universe is speaking to them by giving little signs. I don't think this was a Christian aversion to 'signs and wonders' - oddly for an Anglican priest, Cupitt doesn't believe in God - more the sceptic insistence on human separateness from the universe we live in. We are utterly alone, there is nothing out there that recognizes us, let alone cares for us. But it struck a chord with me at a time when I was trying to evaluate the value or otherwise of psychic research. I was determined not to give in to superstition and I think that's why, despite my own experiences, I haven't really focused on this before.
So my inner sceptic was squawking incessantly throughout Perry's book. Surely he was overestimating the parallels. Isn't this about seeing patterns where none really exist, like a Rorschach inkblot? And might we not be using them to confirm ideas and actions that we have already independently decided upon?
Thankfully, Perry is hugely alive to the challenge and confronts it head on. The whole process of seeing patterns is incredibly subjective, he concedes, and a sceptic is bound to view them, well, sceptically.
When he thinks about someone and a few seconds later that person calls, he chalks it up to the laws of probability - occasionally, that sort of thing is bound to happen. When the long-awaited job finally materializes, he wishes it had come sooner. When his friend sees profound meaning in the sign on a passing truck, he is concerned for his friend's mental stability. What believers see as virtuous faith in an invisible tapestry, he sees as a coping mechanism, a kind of emotional antacid one takes to calm one's stomach in the face of life's unsettling realities.
He also says that in the beginning he counted virtually anything as a sign.
To friends looking in from the outside, it often seemed a bit superstitious, and now that I look back on it, much of it looks that way to me, too. I eventually realized, though, that those occurrences that didn't fit the model were simply weaker all the way around, and thus much harder to distinguish from mere chance. I ultimately learned it was in my best interests to dispassionately set them aside.
Strangely the more narrow and restrictive I got, the more amazing the signs got... They seemed to have deep insight into the situations they spoke to, clearly deeper than that of the individuals involved. They even seemed to know the future.
... it appears as if some unseen presence is mysteriously orchestrating events so as to shape them into a message for us. This presence seems responsive to our needs, since it speaks to situations in which we need counsel. By giving us this counsel, it displays the characteristics one would associate with a counselor, a guide, or a parent.
Perry is quite strict about what constitutes a real sign: the more parallels there are, the more likely it is to be genuine and not merely a chance coincidence. It's also clear that one needs to be quite methodical and careful in one's approach in order to benefit fully.
In the hands of a less discerning author this book could easily have been a superficial New Age come-on, but Perry's careful and questioning approach reassured me. But if it's a real phenomenon, how on earth do we explain it? How does it work? What's the mechanism behind it?
In the final chapter Perry examines three possibilities: that similar events cluster in time and space according to some unknown law (that perhaps may be one day explained in terms of quantum physics); that it's a physical manifestation of some wise element in our unconscious; or that it comes, in some sense, from God.
Initially Perry took a pragmatic approach, accepting the guidance without worrying about where it came from. Later he assumed some element in his unconscious was sending him signals. Twenty years down the road he has become gradually convinced that God is the true source. This is not 'a credulous and superstitious reaction to flashy events', he insists:
It is a feeling that grows in one through long and repeated contact, a feeling that doesn't need the support of religious belief systems, a feeling that one may never even articulate to oneself, but that is simply an innate response to the presence of a greater mind.
I've often remarked on the way atheists and sceptics view religious belief as just that, belief - a set of ideas that for whatever reason an individual voluntarily identifies with. There's very little sense at all that religious belief might be based on experience, such as an NDE or similar mystical episode, to take an obvious example. Finally Perry urges that CMPEs too can be seen as physical evidence for God, if humans are willing to observe closely and make the required effort. For that the phenomenon would first have to be generally recognized, and this book is a bold and imaginative first step.
Robert McLuhan is the author of Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters. His blog is Paranormalia.
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