Many readers have undoubtedly heard of the six degrees of separation concept (related to the Small-World Phenomenon), namely that any two people on Earth (short of those belonging to closed off or undiscovered societies) could be connected to one another in fewer than six human links (for a more delimited version of this notion, see Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). Using contemporary parlance, the proverbial global village is indeed a small world! In today’s post, I’d like to share two personal anecdotes that depict breathtakingly unlikely coincidences, which offer a poignant depiction of how small our world truly is.
The first story takes us back to the summer of 1989. I was about to start the second year of my MBA at McGill University but prior to doing so, my then girlfriend and I had decided to take a much-needed vacation across the Charlevoix region culminating in a whale-watching excursion in Tadoussac. On our drive from Montreal to Tadoussac, we stopped off at a rather well-hidden bed and breakfast inn on that first night of our get away. As I made my way to the reception desk, a tall and burly man greeted me cheerfully in English with what appeared to be an American accent. This was somewhat unexpected in that the Charlevoix region is a predominantly French-speaking area where few Americans are known to reside. I placed the book that I was reading at the time on the counter and proceeded to start the check-in process. The book in question was Alone with the Devil by Ronald Markman, a forensic psychiatrist from the Los Angeles area. The tall gentleman, upon seeing the book, remarked that he knew the author very well. He went on to explain that he had spent several years as a public defender in LA County, and it was in that capacity that he had gotten to know Dr. Markman. Had the story ended here, this would have constituted an extraordinary coincidence but there was more to come.
Let’s fast-forward to February 2013: Roughly twenty-four years had elapsed since the aforementioned story had taken place. My hair was now much grayer and my waist size much larger. Otherwise I had retained the same youthful verve for life, as that fateful summer day so many years ago. I was visiting Texas Tech University on the invitation of Erik Bucy and Gregg Murray (a fellow Psychology Today blogger), to speak about my work in the evolutionary consumption area. Erik has been kind enough to invite me back to Lubbock (Texas) to give the plenary lecture at the upcoming Association for Politics and the Life Sciences conference. During our first dinner together in Lubbock, Erik and I were chatting about our respective pasts. Erik mentioned that he was originally from Southern California, and he also referred to the fact that he’s visited Quebec on a few occasions, as his father lives in the Charlevoix region. I am unsure how I managed to link these two personal facts to the encounter that I had had with the burly gentleman close to a quarter of a century ago but on a whim I asked him: “Your father did not happen to once be a public defender in the LA County system?” Erik looked at me bewilderingly and answered in the affirmative. Somehow my brain had made the connection!
Of note, a few weeks prior to that episode, a good friend of mine had asked me whether I had retained my early interests in forensic psychology (e.g., the psychology of criminal psychopaths), and if so whether I’ve continued to read books in this general area. In answering him, I recounted the story with the burly man (in light of the book written by the forensic psychiatrist), yet another extraordinary coincidence. Returning to my conversation with Erik, I informed him of a piece of advice that his father had shared with me back in 1989, namely that I should make sure to never get arrested and thrown in LA County jail. Apparently, if the officers decide to punish you (e.g., you are a recidivist drunk driver), they will throw you with hardened and violent criminals (e.g., habitual gang members), and shout out “Fresh fish out of water.” This is apparently taken to mean that the criminals can do as they please with you, and your cries for help will go unnoticed. Upon hearing this morbid piece of advice, Erik retorted: “Yeah, that sounds like a story my father would share!”
Next, I’d like to narrate a second more recent personal story perhaps not quite as colorful as the one above but certainly one that depicts an astonishing coincidence in its own right. Between 2001 and 2003, I was a Visiting Associate Professor at the University of California-Irvine. We lived in Newport Beach at the time close to the Costa Mesa fairgrounds (I think that this is what it used to be called). My wife and I had decided at some point to visit the fair to browse for possible items to purchase. We ended up buying several prints by Will Rafuse, and ended up putting them up in the kitchen of our current home in Montreal.
Fast-forward more than ten years to June 2012: Approximately a month earlier on May 4, 2012, our beloved male Belgian shepherd Amar had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly (see my Psychology Today tribute to him here). For the next month, I was an utter emotional wreck unable to focus on little other than my immeasurable grief. Finally, in early June of that year, we tentatively began to come out of our cocoon of despair. One of our first family outings after the tragedy was to head off to the famous Atwater Market to stroll around and perhaps get some artisanal ice cream (a universal dispenser of joy!). As we sat to enjoy our ice cream, our female Belgian shepherd Samra proudly stood guarding us, as these beautiful creatures are known to do (see here for a photo of our two majestic shepherds). A couple approached us to compliment us on the beauty of Samra. We proceeded to share our grief with them, and then told them that we were planning to one day inseminate Samra with Amar’s sperm, which was stored at an animal reproduction clinic (yes, our love for our dogs runs that deeply!). The couple insisted that they would be very pleased to adopt one of the eventual puppies, and the man (whose name at the time had escaped me) gave us his business card. Several months later, as my wife was cleaning out her wallet, she found the gentleman's card and noticed his last name (Rafuse). She wondered whether this might indeed be the famous painter (whose prints we had bought close to a decade earlier). Upon visiting his website, it became clear that this was indeed the case! Since that fateful encounter, we’ve become good friends with Will and his wife Kim.
I suppose that the moral of these two stories is that the world is replete with endless wonders, some of which come to us in the shape of extraordinary tales of improbable coincidences and chance encounters. Enjoy life!
Source for Image: