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Great Pan is Dead

March 21, 2019

Twenty-eight years ago, on a bright September morning, I met a group of twenty-five students signed up to take a course on 17th-century British Literature with a Kenyon professor who had decided not to come back after a year teaching abroad in Exeter. It was my first year as a visiting professor, and so, perhaps by coincidence, I met a person who has been a lifelong friend and several others who have kept in touch with me over the years, including one who became an author, Eric D. Lehman. Eric sent me a copy of his newest book Great Pan is Dead: My Encounters with Coincidence, which eventually found its way to my new office in the dining hall, although it was addressed to my former office in the library.

I am a great skeptic about coincidence. This is partly because throughout his life, my father enjoyed making a joke about having premonitions. He’d say that he’d had one, and then tell whoever would listen that so far his premonitions had never, not even once, come true. We were not a family that believed in the Unus Mundus, a world with underlying order and structure. We do not say that things “happen for a reason.”

I do believe that if you’re looking for meaning, you’ll find it, because people are wired to see patterns and notice cause and effect. Eric begins his discussion of coincidence by using the OED to define it as “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.” He seizes on the word “apparent” because as a child he felt that “it implied there could indeed be a hidden meaning, a hidden purpose.” He tells stories about coincidences that have made him think about whether there might be a “cosmic connection.”

The evolution of Eric’s thoughts and beliefs about coincidence is illustrated both with stories from books he’s read and from his own experience. Many of the stories from his experience are told with comments from the adult narrator, like “of course it wasn’t a very unlikely coincidence, but I mushed it all up in my head, thinking that ‘fate’ had its hand in every one of my adolescent shenanigans.” If you’re interested in such stories, you should not only read this book but also take a look at Professor David Spiegelhalter’s website where such stories are being collected and categorized.

The title story comes from a passage from Plutarch’s Moralia, the story of how the decision to announce that “Great Pan is Dead” was made simply because the wind died down when a certain man’s ship reached a designated place. “The refrain of Plutarch’s story,” Eric says, “stayed with me, echoing for years afterward: ‘Great Pan is dead!’ I would repeat it like a mantra, as a reminder that meaning arrives when the universe, such as it is, grants you grace. You could not look for it.”

Rather than ranging too widely into stories about synchronicity and serendipity or delving too deep and bringing up tales about noticing coincidence and using it to justify belief in the supernatural, this little book goes in another direction. It finds its way to the observation that we create meaning by sharing stories. Then it goes further, to consider the way coincidences can become signposts in the pattern of our lives, a record of the way each of us can “craft meaning in this moment, and the next.”

A series of nine small meditations on a theme, Great Pan is Dead is ideal for allowing readers to work in some contemplative moments between the events of their daily lives.

It is a coincidence that I’m recommending this book to you, since I might not have noticed its publication except for a long-ago connection with a group of people I would not have met except for a professor’s decision to leave her job at a time I was available to replace her. The meaning of her action is a signpost in my life.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2019 2:19 pm

    Coincidence is just as likely as anything else – but there are a lot of ‘something else’ possibilities.

    It’s a small world. We’ve noticed, at our new community, a large number of people who: worked on submarines (including the two of us), spent time at the U. of Wisconsin-Madison, have a Princeton connection (went there, kids went there, worked there – me), have a strong science background, and a couple of other things.

    We’re a largely professional community, so all of these make some sense, but it kind of surprising when we add a new person to one or more of the lists.

    • March 24, 2019 4:18 pm

      You’re looking for patterns (science background, for instance) and so finding them.
      I do find that academic communities have a lot of small world connections. This morning my daughter, a grad student at UNC Chapel Hill, told me she’d talked to a prospective grad student and found out that he had attended my presentation at ICFA last week.

      • March 24, 2019 5:38 pm

        There are a lot of universities represented here – professional sorts – but many outsiders don’t know UW-Madison is a world-class institution sitting in the middle of the country (there are others, too – U.Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, and U. Chicago). Pretty liberal place.

        Some scientists know their pedigree and recite it; I wasn’t that clued in.

        It’s old-school week here a lot more than I expected it would be.

  2. lemming permalink
    March 21, 2019 8:19 pm

    Don’t forget the really bizarre coincidences that connected that group of twenty-five people…

    • March 24, 2019 4:19 pm

      Do I know about these bizarre coincidences? Even though you and I have become good friends since then, at the time y’all weren’t telling me everything!

  3. March 22, 2019 2:41 pm

    This is fascinating to me, his premise about ‘signposts,’ because I look at coincidences as patterns that you only see after the fact…one thing happened that lead to another. And that means for me, something else could have happened, just as good (or bad), that lead me in another way.

    Life is full of variety and possibility and we give events and incidents in our lives meaning because, like you, I believe we are *wired* to see meaning. And I would go further and say we give them the meaning WE want, because we are never objective about our own lives!

    • March 24, 2019 4:21 pm

      Absolutely. That Kenyon prof who didn’t return after her year at Exeter? I imagine that the meaning of her action is an entirely different kind of signpost for her than it is for me.

      • March 24, 2019 4:40 pm

        “I imagine that the meaning of her action is an entirely different kind of signpost for her than it is for me.”

        Oh yes, that is so good! I agree!

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