He was a Texas Ranger, patrolling the Rio Grande in 1940, when he got lost in a canyon after dark. He tried to climb out but lost his balance just as he neared the top of a cliff. Suddenly Joe, a fellow Ranger, appeared and hoisted him up to safety with his rifle strap. Burton thanked Joe for saving his life but lost contact with him after both men enlisted in the military during World War II.
Burton was in the middle of sharing his story when an elderly man appeared in the doorway. It was Joe, the fellow Ranger. He had tracked Burton down 25 years later and walked into his classroom at precisely the moment Burton was recounting his rescue.
"I'll have Joe finish the rest of the story," Burton said, without missing a beat as the astonished classroom witnessed the two men's reunion.
You could call Burton's story an amazing coincidence, but James Hollis calls it something else: "synchronicity" -- a meaningful coincidence.
Synchronicity is a term coined by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and mystic. It is the occurrence of two events that have no apparent cause and effect relation but are nonetheless connected by meaning, often in profound ways.
Synchronicity is an odd term, but it's a familiar experience to many people. Someone dreams of a childhood friend he hasn't heard from in years and gets a phone call from that friend the next day. Another person loses his mother and hears her favorite song on the radio on the day of her funeral. Someone facing a terrible personal crisis is the accidental recipient of a book that seems written just for him or her.
"Everybody has stories like that," says Hollis, a Jungian analyst and author who knew Burton and shares his story in the book "Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives." "We live in a haunted world where invisible energies are constantly at work."
Yet few people understand how synchronicities work. Why do they happen, where do they come from, and does their existence suggest that everyone's life is somehow part of some cosmic drama shaped by unseen hands?
Or, as critics insist, is synchronicity simply psychological narcissism, the result of a person's desperate need to find meaning in odd connections that anyone would notice if he paid attention.
Those are the kind of questions that scientists, skeptics and psychologists have long asked about striking coincidences. The concept of synchronicity, though, is moving mainstream. Google the term and 5.4 million references pop up. Facebook has a page devoted to synchronicity. And there are people who collect synchronicity stories like kids used to collect baseball cards. They catalog them in pieces such as "29 Mind-Blowing Coincidences You Won't Believe Happened
" or "20 Amazing Coincidences.
Even those who have never heard of synchronicity are influenced by it, some say. If you flip open the Bible and randomly pick out the first Scripture you see for guidance, or you pay attention to premonitions or astrology, you are relying to some degree on the principles of synchronicity.
"The interest in synchronicity is exploding," says Gibbs A. Williams, a psychoanalyst and author of the book "Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences."
"Many synchronicity disciples get off on this stuff as if they were junkies craving their next fix."
Of plum pudding and golden beetles
Synchronicity groupies have their favorite stories. Some have been cited so much it's difficult to know if they're true or apocryphal -- or a combination of both.
Consider the infamous tale of Emile Deschamps and his plum pudding.
In 1805, Deschamps, a French poet, was treated to plum pudding by Monsieur de Fortgibu, a stranger he met in a restaurant. A decade later, Deschamps goes to a Paris restaurant and orders plum pudding again. The waiter tells him the last dish has been served to someone else -- a Monsieur de Fortgibu.
The story gets odder. In 1832, Deschamps goes to a diner where someone offers him plum pudding. He jokingly tells his friends that the only thing missing is de Fortgibu -- and de Fortgibu, now an elderly man, promptly wobbles into the diner.
No wonder Jung was drawn to such stories of synchronicity. He was fascinated by strange experiences. He was a lifelong believer in the occult and claimed to have personal encounters with the paranormal.
Jung's belief in synchronicity was, in fact, reinforced by a synchronistic encounter that was as eerie as Deschamps' plum pudding story.
Jung was treating a highly educated young woman who he thought relied too much on her intellect. He said she was "psychologically inaccessible" and concluded that a breakthrough could only come if something unexpected and irrational turned up during their sessions.
One day the woman told Jung she had a strange dream the night before in which someone had handed her an expensive piece of jewelry, a "golden scarab" shaped like a beetle. While the woman was sharing the dream, Jung heard a gentle tapping on an office window behind him. It was a large insect trying to get into the darkened office.
Jung opened the window and caught the insect when it flew in. It was a golden scarabaeid beetle, whose gold-green color resembled the color of the golden scarab jewelry.
"Here is your scarab," Jung said, handing it to the stunned woman.
The moment proved to be a breakthrough for the woman, Jung claimed. His decision to use the synchronistic moment to forge a breakthrough with his patient would become a model for other Jungian therapists. Their message: Synchronistic moments don't happen just to inspire wonder; they arrive to force people to reconsider their values.
Why synchronicity happens
Whenever an improbable coincidence occurs, says Hollis, the Jungian analyst, people should look for the possible message in that moment.
"We should ask if there is another dimension to it (the striking coincidence) that would ask of me, what change of attitude and what insight I might draw from this," he says. "Is there a task there that is corrective to my way of looking at things?"
In his book "Hauntings," Hollis explained the message behind the former Texas Ranger's improbable reunion. Hollis befriended him when both taught at the same university.
"For my colleague, who is a sensate 'facts are facts kind of guy,' the incident helped expand his psychic life by bringing a bit of mystery into it," Hollis wrote. "After his sensibility enlarged, he was even more aware of the presence of invisible energies amid his tangible world."
Some believe that people can train themselves to summon synchronistic moments.