The Beauty of Coincidence
Albert Einstein once said, “Coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous”. This phrase, although coming from one of the most influential scientists in modern history, takes on a whole new level of meaning when thought about in the context of ceremony and ritual. Ritual plays a vital role in ceremony because it is believed that through precisely repeated actions, previous miraculous coincidences can be re-enacted. Coincidence is the deciding factor that connects ritual to ceremony, and propels the amount of energy that is invested into ceremony onward from one generation to the next. At Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, it quickly became evident that coincidence was what made the class experience move from an observational analysis to an active involvement in Native American tradition and spirituality.
In Jonathan Smith’s Imagining Religion, he says that coincidence essentially functions as the excuse that people seek out as proof of the existence of a greater power. In his eyes, “the discovery that two events…while so utterly separated by time and space that they could not ‘really’ be connected…raises the possibility of a secret interconnection of things that is the scholar’s most cherished article of faith” (Smith, 53). In other words, people create meaning out of coincidences in life as a way of proving the existence of a higher power. This concept of seeking out meaning in the seemingly random directly applies to ritual in ceremony. Just as “[temples serve] as a focusing lens, marking and revealing significance”, coincidences can act as the proof of revealed significance (Smith, 54). If a person has had a sacred experience or experienced a vision while doing something in a specific way, the idea is that if the exact scenario can be replicated, then the mystic event can be recreated. At its core and using Smith’s logic, ceremony can be reduced to humans attempting to control that which is uncontrollable in order to feel grounded. This outlook makes perfect sense in a scholarly setting because it allows people to speak about ceremony in a tangible and concrete way. The only problem is that this pragmatic view of ceremony makes the most sense when analyzing it from a distance; when actual participation is involved, it is difficult to remain as detached as Smith seems to think is necessary.
Analyzing ceremony and ritual from behind the pages of a book is a sure way to make logical sense of the practice. It is easy to freely state that “ritual gains force where incongruency is perceived and thought about”, but when you are in a position where an incongrueny in ritual actually occurs either to you or before your very eyes, Smith’s words cease to be so straightforward (Smith, 63). It is only through actual experience that his reasonable words lose importance, and it is only through actual experience that academic logic can be negated. When one has a personal experience during ceremony that shakes the very foundation of their being, Smith’s rational explanations about why ceremonies occur take a backseat to fear and instinct. Much like an atheist who begins to pray when faced with death, when coincidences of insurmountable odds begin to arise during ceremony, previous beliefs and certainties fade into oblivion.
During my time at Pine Ridge, I encountered a series of coincidences that have left me questioning, or rather embracing the oddities that occurred while we were there. On our third morning on the Reservation, our plan was to spend the day visiting Bear Butte before heading back to the motel to pick up our sweat clothes and grab a quick bite to eat before making our way over to that night’s sweat lodge. Having been to Pine Ridge before, I figured I would pack my sweat clothes just in case any plans changed at the last minute. Sure enough, when we arrived back in Porcupine, a split-second decision was made and I ended up in the car with only one other non-native on the way to the Lakota chief’s house. Upon arrival, we stood around the fire for a few minutes before Mike Senior beckoned me to his side. He told me that the spirits had spoken to him in the previous night’s Sweat before confidently stating a few facts about me that very few people know. The true coincidence came later, during the sweat, where he told me that the spirit that is with me is Little Spider. I was once bitten by a spider and had to be hospitalized for it. To anybody else it may have been a simple flesh wound, but to me it was a re-alignment of all the things that had previously been askew. By some odd coincidence, Mike Senior had touched on a monumental event in my life that, in some indirect way, had led me to his doorstep. The spider, for reasons unknown to me, is special to the Little Boy family. Perhaps this is why Mike spoke about the spider, but is it not then still a coincidence that I happened to be on the receiving end of his message? Smith would say that I am taking an accidental starting point and “projecting on it both significance and regularity”, but I believe this is where academic analysis falls short in a ceremonial setting because projecting significance still results in some form of significance (Smith, 54).
The point of religion, in Smith’s own words, is “its capacity for rationalization (Smith, 57). What he forgoes however, is that some things simply cannot be rationalized, beginning with our own existence. The why or how we are here has yet to be explained beyond any reasonable doubt, so wouldn’t it then make sense that certain things within our frame of existence also have yet to be explained? Religion then, does not have much of a place in ceremony either because of “the fact that [ceremony] is held in eloquent testimony that the [participant]…is not in control”, while the function of religion is the attempt to rationalize and therefore in some way control reality (Smith, 64). Using this model, coincidence and ceremony fall under the same umbrella as that which cannot be controlled.
Relying solely on personal experience as a way of rationalizing reality is no more productive than academically rationalizing it. Although there is not a correct approach to that which is not easily explained in our world, it is worth recognizing that perhaps these deviating approaches are just different ways in which we attempt to hyper-control whatever variables we can as a way of making up for a larger lack of general control. Our thoughts and our approach to the unexplained can make us feel more grounded in this groundless existence. Coincidence though, seems to be the key factor that continues to draw people either towards rational explanation or precise ritual and ceremony. Coincidence is the once repeating element that slips through the cracks of reasonable reality and continues to make humans question whether or not there is a higher power or an inexplicable interconnectedness of all things. Whatever the case, assigning some form of meaning to coincidence, whether rational or mystical, allows us to see the world through a lens of unparalleled beauty.