The language of “just a coincidence”

When we experience coincidences in our lives, we may or may not reflect on them as such, that is, we may or may not tell ourselves “now that’s a coincidence”. If we do reflect on events that we mark as coincidental, we have a number of perspectives we can take on them — a number of ways in which we may frame them.

One of these ways is to characterize them as “just” a coincidence, or “merely” coincidental events. This way of speaking about them is not neutral: it suggests or implies something about the episode; and often we even put an emphasis on the restrictive qualifier (“just”, “merely”), as if to make certain that the implication isn’t overlooked.

What is the implication when we say, of a coincidence, that it is “just” a coincidence?

If it is “just” a coincidence, then it is a coincidence and nothing else (or nothing more). What else (or what more) would it be?

Most likely, what it would be (if it weren’t “just” a coincidence) is a meaningful coincidence, that is, in Jungian parlance, a case of synchronicities. When we emphasize that something is “just a coincidence”, what we are saying is that it is not a “meaningful coincidence” — it’s merely a coincidence, it doesn’t mean anything. We assume, as it were, that coincidences fall roughly in two classes: those with meaning and those without, which latter we might point to as those coincidences which are “just coincidences”.

On what basis do we make this distinction? How do we decide whether a case of coincidence is meaningful or devoid of meaning? Is it something in the character of the events themselves (some objective feature of the world, which any neutral observer might notice and measure)? Or is it something about the experience (the subjective impression we have when we live through the coincidental events and the way in which we find them to be either meaningful or meaningless)? And if the latter, then how much of that experience is passive, something that happens to us psychologically (e.g. being gripped by a “numinous” feeling), and how much is active, that is, conscious choice (interpretation, framing, imagination)?

We know that framing is rarely an entirely conscious process, fully controlled (and controllable) by the will and intelligible to the rational mind. There is always a “background” in framing activity, in addition to the conscious “foreground” (or, again, in Jungian parlance, there is always some unconscious element). However, we also know that we can nonetheless in many cases actively shape the way we interpret events, and thus frequently frame and re-frame our experience; and there are well-known rhetorical means to manipulate frame, and social tendencies often impose frames, too. At least to some degree, then, we can presume the interpretation of a coincidence as “just” a coincidence as a matter of choice. And since choices can be habitualized, there may be such a thing as a habitual way of experiencing the world (a coloring of one’s world view, and a tendency in one’s emotional responses and actions) as filled with either synchronicities or else with coincidences which are “just” coincidences.

The language of “just a coincidence” is dangerously effective in promoting the latter: not just because it provides a handy formulation, but also because it is a phrase that enables us to avoid making our choice explicit. When a person emphasizes the “just” in that sentence (“It’s just a coincidence.”), then they imply, even insist, on their framing of the coincidence as devoid of meaning — but without having to say so. The emphasis immediately loses its force if we append the explication (“It’s just a coincidence: it doesn’t mean anything.”). For the explication can now be challenged with reasons, which may support the opposite view.

Note here, then, that the language of “just a coincidence” is by no means the most rational or reasonable way of talking about coincidence. By deleting part of the content of its statement (“I choose to view these events as having no meaning.”), it actually hides reasons or ratios, rather than providing them. The language of “just” enables a more authoritarian style that suppresses rather than encourages discursive exploration of whether we might frame the events as meaningful or meaningless. The more reasonable versions would be either a synchronistic interpretation (making the meaning explicit) or an interpretation of the events as meaningless which motivates and explicates one’s choice as seeing them so, i.e. as devoid of meaning. The language of “just” doesn’t provide discursive content in either direction, and is thus the least reasonable or rational variation of response of the three.

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By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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