Against All Odds

In 1805, the French poet Emile Deschamps was only a young boy when his neighbor – an older gentleman named M. de Fortgibu – returned from a trip to England. He’d brought back with him an English treat called plum pudding – a dessert that’s quite popular in England, but about as unusual to find in France as it is here. He shared a piece of it with his neighbor, the young Emile, and the future poet enjoyed remembered the taste of it, as well as his oddly named older neighbor.

Years went by. Emile, now a young man, happened to walk past a certain restaurant in Paris which displayed some of its dishes in the window to draw in more traffic. That’s how he saw it: the plum pudding. Drawn by memories of the flavor from his childhood, Deschamps went inside to ask if he could purchase the dish, but was informed, with apologies, that the dish in the window was the last portion in the show, and that it had just been sold to another customer. The server helpfully pointed out who the lucky soul was, and Emile Deschamps was amused to realize that it was his old neighbor of years ago: M. de Fortgibu.

Finally, in 1832, nearly three decades from the beginning of the story, Emile Deschamps was at a small dinner party. The hosts announced with pride that they would be serving an unusual dessert to their guests – plum pudding. When the treat was brought out to be served, Emile told the gathering about his two previous encounters with the dish, and remarked that the only element missing from this third instance, was M. de Fortgibu. Then there came a knock at the door. Standing on the threshold, now quite an old man, was the figure Emile immediately recognized as M. de Fortgibu. He was looking for a dinner party – just not that one. The only other person in the room who knew him was Deschamps. M. de Fortgibu had been invited to a different party in a different apartment in the same building. But he had gotten the doors confused, and wound up in the wrong apartment – just in time for plum pudding.

This story, which is entirely true, according to Emile Deschamps himself, is a classic example of strange coincidence. Something happens which seems so unlikely that it must mean something – and yet, so odd that there’s no obvious meaning to be drawn from it. The early psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, cited this specific coincidence as evidence of what he called synchronicity – the idea that events can be connected by meaning, even if they aren’t connected by cause and effect. For Jung, this was all part and parcel of his belief in the paranormal, his belief that our world is subject to forces beyond our ability to perceive or understand by conventional, scientific means. It’s not a belief that ever got much traction in the scientific circles to which he was making his arguments, and may be part of why his contemporary, friend, and sometimes competitor, Sigmund Freud, came to be so much better known, at least in the popular imagination. But even for those who aren’t concerned about the absence of scientific evidence, this strikes me as a hard pitch to make. Because even if a coincidence seems big and startling, it’s often hard to find any obvious meaning in it.

Another example: a few years ago, the folks at National Public Radio were doing a show all about coincidence, and in preparation for it, they asked listeners to call in with their favorite coincidence stories from their own lives. One of these stories came from an American woman living abroad, who had once started a conversation with a stranger after they were introduced to each other at a party as the only two Americans in the room. After chit-chatting for a while about their families where they were from, she and her fellow guest worked it out that not only did that guest live in the same city in New York where her father had grown up, but that this random stranger actually lived in the same house where her father was raised, many years earlier, before it had was sold. Curious, but no plum pudding. Except, that in the same round of phone calls the producers also heard from an entirely different woman, who told a story about meeting one of her college professors on the first day of classes. They discovered they both had a connection to a small town in Vermont – her professor lived there, and that was also the town where that young woman’s mother grew up. But when she shared her mother’s maiden name, the professor was taken aback, because her current house was the house her student’s mother had grown up in. A coincidence of coincidences!

Now, it is certainly possible, whether you find Jung’s arguments compelling or not, for you to see the sign of the paranormal, or more specifically the workings of the Divine in these or any other noteworthy or critical turn of chance. Far-be-it from me to tell you with absolute certainty where God is, and where God is not. But before pointing to this sort of seeming odds-defying as definitive proof of – well, almost anything, it’s important to remember that there is something in our common humanity that is prone to finding patterns – and, thus, seemingly-important coincidences – even when they are demonstrably not there.

Sometimes, this is as simple as our minds distorting the details just enough to fit into an elegant or somehow satisfying pattern. For instance, the movie Magnolia opens with the narrator describing a series of odd and macabre coincidences, as evidence that there must be more at work in the universe than simple chance. The first is the murder of an English gentleman in a place called Greenberry Hill, for which three men were eventually hanged on that same rise. Those three men were Robert Green, Henry Berry, and Lawrence Hill. Green. Berry. Hill. Get it? This event wasn’t made up by the film maker – those are three real men who really died, and the place where they supposedly committed their crime, and definitely suffered their punishment, really was called Greenberry Hill. Just not until after the hangings. For many years before, and for most years since, the place was called Primrose Hill. The names of the convicted couldn’t be a coincidence with a nickname that their deaths had actually created.

But even when the facts are there and undistorted, and it seems like they exist in such a thorough defiance of the odds that they simply must mean something, we come to a much larger issue. Han Solo famously said, “Never tell me the odds,” in preparation for defying them. But we humans are generally not very good at estimating the likelihood of events. We tend to think reflexively about our world in terms dramatically smaller and simpler than it actually is – even when we understand on an intellectual level that we’re getting the scale all wrong. The unlikely meeting coincidence – like those two women who’d each met people that lived in the house one of their parents grew up in – is a great example. Most people have a fairly small and manageable group of other folks that they know well – this number, on average, is actually in precipitous decline in the United States, and to sad and worrying effect. But in order to create a remarkable coincidence, you don’t need to meet someone you already know well in a strange and out-of-the-way location. You don’t have to know the person well. You don’t even have to know them at all. You just have to share a connection with them of some sort that feels somehow significant or important. That bar is actually quite low – even a socially isolated person is still connected to vast numbers of people. The chances of having some chance meeting that feels wildly strange and out of the ordinary are actually much better than we intuitively think.

In Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire, two angels – Damiel and Cassiel –

walk the streets of Berlin, unseen by human eyes, watching the unfolding of daily life and listening in to the thoughts of each person in it. When they meet up early in the film to discuss their work, it becomes clear that each of them has been noting down idiosyncratic moments or odd bits of happenstance in the lives of everyday people. A woman, for instance, who closed up her umbrella while it was raining, and allowed herself to be drenched. A conductor on the subway who, instead of announcing the station stop, shouted out, “Tierra del Fuego!” A child listening to his elder read the Odyssey with such rapt attention that his eyes did not even blink once while staring up at him. This is an amazing inversion of the common theological attitude that sees the hand of God in every roll of the dice – or at least the important-seeming ones. Damiel and Cassiel are not controlling the course of fate, but they also aren’t detached observers. They feel everything – they feel joy in every height and rage and grief in every low. Mostly, though, they simply marvel at the complex, variable, and always surprising character of humankind. It is, to me, a profound argument for a God not defined by power and control, but by accompaniment and witness. Rather than a framework where human beings exist in order to marvel at God with wonder and awe, instead a Divinity capable of and eager to feel awe and wonder towards us.

          Trauma, raw and untended, can be incredibly isolating. When the things a person has suffered or seen are bad enough, they can overwhelm everything else in life and in the world. When that happens we badly need a sense of connection to others in order to begin to stop reliving the same anguish over and over in an endless loop. And tragically, if we do get caught on that terrible wheel, running in place with only the deafening echoes of our pain for company, that too often serves to isolate us all the more. Bad choices and hurtful actions, born of pain and profound hurt, drive away the people we need help from most. The real odds are that some of us here this morning have been in that lonely, painful place before. It may even be the case that one or more among us is there right now. If you came here today because you need help and you don’t know where else to turn, we are glad that you made it to us. I hope you find some solace here and I ask you – please – to take that last remaining step towards getting what you need in order to live. See me after the service, or one of our greeters or ushers or any of the folks you’ve seen in the service this morning, or just reach out to the person sitting next to you if that’s as far as you can manage. I’m about to talk about someone in the depths of despair and before I do I just need to say to anyone who’s already there this morning that you are not alone, that your life matters, and that I and this community want to help you in any way we can.

          David Sharpe was caught up in the that perpetual wheel of despair, caught in a trauma he could not manage or endure on his own. An Air Force veteran still reliving moments of his time in Afghanistan, he felt utterly alone with his pain and in a moment of despair, he took steps to take his own life. His eyes were closed. He was on the cusp. And then, a very wet tongue licked his ear. That tongue belonged to a 6-month old pit bull named Cheyenne. A dog who depended on him for food and other basic needs. Another living thing that needed him to keep living. Which he did, thankfully. That one connection allowed him to build and rebuild other connections, to get the help he needed in managing his own trauma, and coming out of that cycle of pain. David ultimately went on to found Companions for Heroes – an organization that matches active duty military, veterans, and first responders with shelter and rescue animals as a component in the process of healing in addressing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

          And all of that was able to happen because Cheyenne decided to lick his ear at just the right moment. Perhaps not the most unbelievable of coincidences – young dogs lick their owners faces all the time. But still, a matter of chance, and one that meant everything in the life of David Sharpe. And whether you view it as coincidence or synchronicity, happenstance or fate, the meaning I find in moments such as this has nothing to do with the why of it – why him, and not some others? Why there? Why then? In my belief, they why is either beyond my knowing, or there is simply no why at all. What is within my capacity is what comes after a moment like that. Grace, as I have said to you before, is luck redeemed by the purpose that we put it to. If you feel as though you have broken the odds, the best thing to do – the right thing to do – is to make that count for something. To seek, as best we can, to be that life-saving chance in someone else’s story – by being attentive and open to the hardships of others. By being kind. Even if we cannot reliably create a plum pudding – a fascinating story to tell at a dinner party, that makes people scratch their heads in wonder at the universe – we can each make a difference, against all odds, in the life of another. We have only to seek out the chance to do so wherever we can.