With so many trillions of daily happenings, some weird and wonderful events are inevitable—random serendipities that we could never predict in foresight but can savor in hindsight. From sports to relationships to our very existence, chance rules.
Sports. I defy you to watch this 7-second basketball clip (of a “double doinked” basketball fan) and not smile (or cringe). Freakish events are commonplace in baseball and basketball—as in astonishing hot and cold hitting and shooting streaks. Even when such streaks approximate mere random sequences, they hardly seem random to fans. That’s because random data are streakier than folks assume. (Coin tosses, too, have more runs of heads and of tails than people expect.) And thus is born the sporting world’s preeminent myth—the “hot hand” (see here and here).
Chance encounters. Albert Bandura has documented the lasting significance of chance events that deflect our life course into an unanticipated relationship or career. He recalls the book editor who came to one of his lectures on the “Psychology of Chance Encounters and Life Paths”—and ended up marrying the woman he chanced to sit beside.
In 1978, I was invited to a five-day conference in Germany, where I came to know a more senior American colleague who chanced to have an adjacent assigned seat. Six months later, when he was invited to become a social psychology textbook author, he referred an acquisitions editor to me, which led to my writing of textbooks and eventually these TalkPsych.com essays. So, thanks to this happenstance seating assignment (and to the kindness of my distinguished colleague), I gained a meaning-filled new vocation . . . and now you are reading this.
Recently I was stranded on a rainy Cambridge, Massachusetts, sidewalk, waiting for a lost Lyft driver. That mix-up led to my sharing a ride with University of California at Santa Barbara professor Ann Taves. Making small talk, I asked her about the California fires, noting that I have a friend whose department at Westmont College (in Santa Barbara) was burned in wildfires some years ago.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked.
“Ray Paloutzian,” I said.
Her reply: “I'm married to him!”
But then it got weirder. She said she’d heard that I had a Seattle connection. I told her about family there and mentioned we now own a home in the area.
“Where is that?” she asked. When I said Bainbridge Island, she looked a little stunned and said, “Where on Bainbridge?”
I explained that it was on a beach called “Yeomalt,” one point north of where the ferry docks.
Her mouth dropped open. “You're that David Myers?!”
Wonder of wonders, her uncle was also named David Myers, and she spent time over many summers with Uncle David in our little neighborhood—meaning we surely had crossed paths multiple times. She knew all about the other Yeomalt Myers . . . and her uncle’s name doppelganger.
I recalled for her the many times that her uncle and I would row past each other while salmon fishing in the early morning . . . with Dave Myers exchanging a friendly wave with Dave Myers. (That always did feel slightly weird.)
The point is not that just the world is weird, but that with so many things happening, some weirdness in our lives is to be expected, and enjoyed, be it double doinks or chance encounters that reveal the unlikeliest of connections. Some happenings are destined not to be explained, but to be savored.
Our improbable lives. But surely the unlikeliest aspect of our lives is our very existence. As I explain in Psychology, 12th edition (with Nathan DeWall), conception was “your most fortunate of moments. Among 250 million sperm, the one needed to make you, in combination with that one particular egg, won the race. And so it was for innumerable generations before us. If any one of our ancestors had been conceived with a different sperm or egg, or died before conceiving, or not chanced to meet their partner or . . . The mind boggles at the improbable, unbroken chain of events that produced us.”
From womb to tomb, chance matters. And whether you call it chance or providence, your life’s greatest blessing is surely that, against near-infinite odds, you exist.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)