Creative Problem-Solving … Accidentally On Purpose
July 26, 2012
I was working on a difficult story when I ran into a perplexing problem. A total roadblock. How to simplify a complex story – one that involved quantum physics, cancer, depression, hope against all odds and the ephemeral topic of “miracles?”
The story was about a terminally ill cancer patient.
Third Time Was a Charm, but So Were the First and Second Times
He also happened to be a licensed clinical neuropsychologist and an international best-selling author who actually ended up surviving his “terminal” illness, after dying, not once, not twice … but three times.
Part of the story delved into the concept of synchronicity―finding meaning in causally unrelated (“acausal”) coincidences and events―events that greatly stretch the probabilities of chance and even belief sometimes. The doctor in the story believed the concept of synchronicity helped him understand and survive his “terminal” disease. The trick, he believed, was to become aware of these happenings (events and coincidences) and to seek meaning in them.
Some synchronicity events create puzzling paradoxes that seem beyond our understanding of reality. They conflict with fundamental principles of our reason, but nonetheless, they happen.
” A paradox is not a conflict within reality. It is a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality should be like.” – Richard Feynman, American physicist
Synchronicity was a term coined by Dr. Carl Jung to describe these types of happenings. During his many years of research and medical practice, he documented multiple cases that could not be explained by mere probabilities of chance. Dr. Jung came to believe if you paid attention to these events, they could add meaning to your life. They might even help and guide you in a time of personal distress.
All of this was out of my league. Way out. But I was open to at least thinking about the possibility of synchronicity. The problem was how to explain it in clear, simple language and at the same time, incorporate the quantum physics, non-locality and observer participancy elements that were also part of the story. Then, weave them so that the seams didn’t show. Like I said, way out of my league.
You go to a bookstore looking for a particular book, but can’t remember the title.
You walk down an aisle and a book falls off the shelf to the floor in front of you.
It’s the very book you’re looking for.
Odd, but nothing life-shattering.
But some synchronicity events could be life-saving and life-altering, like the following two real-life events.
Ordinary Reasons but No Ordinary Miracles
“All 15 members of a church choir in Beatrice, Nebraska, due at practice at 7:20, were late on the evening of March 1, 1950.
The minister, his wife and daughter had one reason (his wife delayed to iron the daughter’s dress), one girl waited to finish a geometry problem, one couldn’t start her car, two lingered to hear the end of an especially exciting radio program, one mother and daughter were late because the mother had to call the daughter twice to wake her from a nap, and so on. The reasons seemed rather ordinary.
But there were 10 separate and quite unconnected reasons for the lateness of the 15 persons.
It was rather fortunate that none of the 15 arrived on time at 7:20, for at 7:25 the church building was destroyed in an explosion.” – From “Lady Luck: The Theory of Probability,” by Warren Weaver
What to make of that? What does it mean? What are the odds of something like that happening? Is there possibly an undiscovered connection between minds that transcends the known laws of the universe? Are our minds connected to a “collective unconscious” as Dr. Jung believed? And …
What to Make of This?
One of my all-time favorite books, a classic called “Search for Meaning” written by Dr. Victor Frankl described a synchronicity event that changed his life forever. He had a successful neurology and psychiatry practice in Germany in the late 1930′s, but he was Jewish. He knew he had to leave Germany or face death. Dr. Frankl applied for a Visa and, after several years, it was approved. But there was a problem.
“I was asked to come to the US consulate to pick up my visa. Then I hesitated: Should I leave my parents behind? I knew what their fate would be: deportation to a concentration camp. Should I say good-bye and leave them to their fate? The visa was exclusively for me.” - Victor Frankl, Search for Meaning
Dr. Frankl picked up the visa and went to visit his parents to talk about it. When he arrived, he found his father in tears. “The Nazis have burned down the synagogue.” Dr. Frankl noticed his father had something in his hand. He held it up. It was a fragment of marble his father had saved from the synagogue. It had some scorched writing on it.
One letter engraved on the marble. It was the beginning of one of the Ten Commandments. Which one? The commandment?
כבד את האבא שלך ואמא שלך
“Honor thy father and thy mother.”
Dr. Frankl made his decision. He canceled his visa. It changed his life forever. He was sent to the death camps – yes I said ‘camps’. He survived more than one death camp. “Search for Meaning” recounts that experience. Dr. Frankl eventually survived a terminal death sentence multiple times too.
Never Happened to Me
Strange, undeniably strange, and true. But nothing like that has ever happened to me. Not even the book falling off a shelf in front of me.
But maybe I hadn’t been looking close enough because while finalizing the research for the story, trying to figure out how to simplify it, I happened across an article I’d written a couple of years ago. Synchronicity? I don’t know. But I hadn’t thought about the story for a long time.
It was also about, remarkably, another terminally ill cancer patient. A woman I knew. It had been exceptionally hard to write, but was one of those rare moments when you feel humbled to be asked to do something that might actually make a difference―if only for a short time.
How to Boil it Down?
Trying to complete that story was a challenge for me too. Remarkably similar to the one I was working on.
Living While Dying
The raw emotions involved, the brutal facts, the stark realities, and worse, trying to communicate what it’s like facing the everyday issues of actually living while you’re dying―in plain, simple language―without getting lost in data or minutiae that really didn’t matter.
Happening upon that article at exactly that time helped solve my problem. It removed the block.
It made me ask the question that, as I think about it (which I try to avoid … thinking that is), still makes my head want to explode.
Was happening upon that article purposeful or simply an accident?
I struggle with the thought of it being purposeful. It conflicts with my view of reality.
If it wasn’t purposeful, then it was an accident. But if it was an accident, it was “acausal”―a synchronistic event that only I could draw meaning from.
Either way it sent my kilt a-flutter, sorta like knowing the Boogie Man was watching.