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A sermon by Melissa Guillet delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, May 30, 2010

Synchronicity and Serendipity

In the beginning, what if God, interconnected to all, broke into infinite pieces to better understand what being God was? Would the left hand know what the right was doing? Without my conscious direction, the cells of my body carry on their jobs while I deal with larger matters, which in other respects, seem very small. I am part of a family, several races, a gender, but I do not represent the totality of any of them, nor know what most are doing at any given time. Blind when we’re focused only on our own problems, we don’t see the elephant in the room. Stumbling upon it, do we simply go around, or at most, acknowledge a thick hide, a noisy trunk, a defensive tail? This serendipity gives us opportunity to recognize it and choose how to act.

When serendipity does intervene, I wonder about a higher, collective consciousness that connects our individual psyches. Once, when I was working two jobs, I got home late to discover my partner at the time had forgotten to return the videos. It was snowing. Grumbling, I grabbed the cassettes and got back in the car, out even later than I planned. On my return home, a white on white that didn’t quite mesh, a small clarity in the fog, a tiny white dog caught my eye. Pulling over, I approached the still, off-white fur, felt the slow heartbeat, wary of the growl. I don’t care much for dogs, but taking him home in my coat, my partner and I warmed the dog with wet towels, cleaning off the blood and trying to find the injury. Nothing we could find but a sensitive nose, the heartbeat more rapid, the dog now licking my fingers. We took him to an overnight vet clinic, called later to see if he got claimed. I had seen him running loose earlier that week, ownerless. But someone did come for him. Sometimes the errant hand returns to the body.

What synchronicity lead me to this? To have seen the dog earlier, recognized its white fur against the snow, to be present at that moment? Did I then dedicate my life to rescuing animals? No. But I did not turn a blind eye to this one. I responded to the universe, and maybe that’s all that’s required of us. No one person can save the world. When a woman with a dead car battery needed help, I had to refuse. I had worked eleven hours and my sick husband and child who had arrived to get me needed to get home. She wasn’t alone, I comforted myself. There were others there to respond to such moments and opportunities. I hope they did.

One hand, several fingers… Sometimes we feel it when we lose one. There are people out there who have touched many and perhaps occupy a greater part of our subconscious. One summer night I woke with a start, feeling something was wrong. I turned on the T.V. Lady Diana had just died. The good she had done and her sudden absence from this plane left a tactile emptiness. She pointed the way and the rest of the hand followed.

We are a collective humanity, yet unique individuals. I wonder at our diversity, how different we are from each other. The late scientist Stephen J. Gould, in his book Wonderful Life, believed after studying the soft-bodied fossils of the Burgess shale that out of many, come many more. Spontaneous mutations beget more variety. There have even been many versions of man, with Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal not sequential cousins, but overlapping species. Today, look at the variety we have, and how this variety inter-relates.

The pea aphid, one of the few creatures to have its genetic sequence completed, is the only animal known to make its own carotenoids. These are the molecules that make carrots orange and tomatoes red. We need to eat plants to get this nutrient. But where did the aphid get it so that it could start producing it on its own, like a plant would? How did the aphid change its genetics to act like a plant? Amazingly, while they don’t have lycopene, an encounter with a fungus lead to the mutation of carrying red carotenoids, which now allow the aphids to better hide from predators among their juicy tomato entrees. This is called lateral gene transfer. While no transference of this kind has been noted in humans, scientists are still mapping out our genomes. We do know that, eons ago, a protein called mitochondria with its own genome joined our very cells to coexist. We interacted and were forever changed.

How do all these past interactions add up? In my lifetime, I will learn, experience, achieve, and pass on my knowledge while others will do the same. Are the hours spent learning a skill a result of my interests and perseverance, or is the tendency ingrained from birth? Would the orphaned child of a great pianist take up the keys without knowing their parent’s skills? Is memory stored in our cells and transferred to our children? It feels so natural when I grow my own food, pay attention to the moon. Am I me, or my Iroquois ancestors, or both? My three year old daughter and I watch a catfish eat a water strider at a park. My daughter turns to me and says, “I used to eat bugs when I was a fish!” Is this a recollection of past lives, or my daughter’s development of empathy and transference, or both? Once, we were all fish. Now, in other forms, are we merely cells in a great body, the earth, the universe? How do we matter?

A volcano erupts in Iceland. The next week, I’m watching my basil plants wither in the cold, spring usurped by an ash cloud 250 miles wide crossing the Atlantic. A quart of oil can pollute 250,000 gallons of water. They are still finding oil in Alaska from the Exxon spill 20 years earlier; the BP spill dwarfs it. What was it that a butterfly’s wings could do? More people are hurt out of ignorance rather than malice, by simply not recognizing the effect we have on each other. Who would have thought a fisherman, an oil company, a restaurant owner, the LA tourist board, a supermarket worker, and you shopping for shrimp would have so much in common? After the fact, it’s easy to see how much we are connected when disaster strikes. And when good happens, we often call it a miracle without looking for all the hands behind it. Those hands could be part of something larger, of course. Call it what you will, but one hand alone cannot do much. What if we put our hands together and consciously set something good in motion, a “pay it forward,” if you will? A few weeks back we witnessed all the volunteers that make up our wonderful congregation. There is always room for more hands.

We often can’t know how we affect others until we do, but it is important to recognize when it happens. In the movie, “Donnie Darko,” a teenager is given the rare glimpse of two realities and how he affected each, depending on whether he died during a rift in time. We don’t have these opportunities, at least not in an obvious way. But we can see the effects of our predecessors as the same situations arise for us, whether they be environmental responsibility, political policy, or even how we treat our own family. The sins of the father are ours whether we recognize them or not. In West African spirituality, “sankofa” means to return to the past in order to learn from it, often pictured as a bird lifting an egg off its back. One needs the other to exist; to exist one needs the other. I’ve learned that two contradictory things can simultaneously be true. The cycle can only end by turning around and facing it.

Where can our hands best be put to good use? Raised Roman Catholic, I was taught to obey, to do good, to sacrifice. But to do good alone is a Sisyphus journey, at best. I’ve come across too many people, narcissists to one degree or another, who will never be pleased, wasting too much time trying to meet their demands. In some interpretations of the New Testament, to “turn the other cheek” is not an act of humility, but an act of defiance, as if to say, “Is that all you’ve got?” I want my daughter to be kind to others, but not put up with the malicious and the manipulative. I want her to have the self-esteem I did not. This is why a support system, a way of interacting with others that benefits both, is so important. Take the hand that helps you and walk away from the hand that hurts.

In the great body of the universe, perhaps a serial killer is a cancer cell. Hatred, bigotry, co-dependence, addiction, and selfishness seem to be universal diseases. A single cell will quickly run its course, but if it is given strength to multiply, how much stronger the body needs to be! If you give someone the power, one person can ruin your day, even your life. In a Cherokee proverb, a man is told he has two animals inside him. One is the kind and loyal dog and one is the ravenous wolf that will devour him. The man asks which one is stronger, which one will win? The elder replies, “The one that you feed.”

In a sense, a community, a state, a country, a world, is a single organism when the parts are viewed collectively. It was here at this church I found doing good together is doing good that stays. You want good things to happen? Find good people and work together. You want to be happy? Find others that are happy like you want to be. An aphid’s encounter with a fungus changed its life and its offspring’s lives for generations. Be aware of who you surround yourself with, and how you likewise affect them. Also know, you will never make everyone happy.

We are all connected in ways both perceivable and invisible. Acting in isolation, we do not see our affect on others or enjoy the connections they can bring. We become like monocultures, like corn grown over and over in the same plot, leaching nitrogen out of the soil until it’s yanked out. Then rain and erosion from the hole it left carries all the fertilizer and pesticides it needed to survive this isolation as run off into other crops and our drinking water, its isolated existence causing harm even in its absence. The main reason why crops are grown in monocultures is because a middleman with plows and fertilizer told the farmer to grow them that way. Only the middleman benefits here. Needless to say, this corn has less nutritional value, less worth, than the corn developed over 10,000 years by Native American tribes in Mexico. Yet growers are paid by the pound, regardless of quality, while so many of us accumulate more and more stuff and still feel empty. Instead, look at the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash grown together benefit each other. The corn grows tall, the beans add the nitrogen to the soil the corn requires, the corn provides support for the beans to grow, and the squash shade the roots and keep out the weeds.

Look for beneficial connections. You may look and see nothing. Then you may see one thing connecting you to something else. One encounter and another one make two. Two and one more, make three. Then five, eight, 13, 21, 34, 75, the Fibonacci series increasing exponentially, appearing in the five points of our hands, feet, and head, in a starfish, in a flower. Then the eight-petal flower, the octopus. The spiral in a fern or a shell. The proportion of space between one phalange and the next on a single finger matching the same proportion in space from one planet to the next. The fingers of Adam and God touching in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel look different to me now. There are many ways of knowing and we will never know them all. But serendipity gives us opportunity to ask the questions and synchronicity is the answer coming back.