Okay, you’ve heard them before:

Everything happens for a reason. 
You were meant to be there.
Such and such was meant to happen.
Do we really believe these things?  Or are they just a convenient way of summing up extraordinary coincidences without thinking about them too deeply?   Is there some Supreme, Organizing Force in the universe?  Or are our brains just a super-powerful storytelling machines that take raw data and arrange it into a compelling narrative?
These are big questions, and let me tell you up front: I don’t have the answer.  But it is something I’ve been thinking about lately.  Over the past few years since I began the project – and especially the past week – I’ve found myself at the convergence of some pretty astonishing events.  I’ve done some research, and thought some more.
I’d like to use this space to share my perspective with you and then, of course, you can decide for yourself. 
But first let me tell you a story.
I’m an Alzheimer’s Advocate.  After watching what happened to my grandfather – how it ravaged not only him but our entire family – I’ve made the decision to make a difference however I can.   This started with the SBYF Project, but has also grown into more direct, legislative advocacy as well. 

A month ago I visited the office of my local legislator, Congressman Patrick Meehan (PA – 7th District). I’d never done this before.  The Congressman wasn’t there (overseas for duties related to his position on the Homeland Security Committee, I was told), but I did get to speak with a member of his health policy staff.  She was younger than I expected – early 20s, I guessed – and she led me into a small, empty conference room.  We sat across from one another and I thought: is this it?  This is democracy in action?  Two people with notepads, sitting on plastic wheely chairs in a dull, dim conference room?  She was incredibly nice.  She listened intently and made notes as I told her about two crucial pieces of legislation that I believed would help families struggling with Alzheimer’s disease.  Would she please pass that information along to the Congressman? 
She said she would.  That was her job. 
That only took about four minutes, so, unsure what else to do, I told her about my postcard project, how it was inspired by my grandfather, and how I hoped it would be a compelling narrative to create awareness…even amongst those who had no experience with the disease. I left behind a small stack of postcards. 

A month later I traveled to Washington D.C. as part of the Alzheimer’s Association’s National Advocacy Forum.  It’s a great event.  Basically, advocates from all over America gather in Washington for a few days to convene, share their stories, and learn about how they can do more.  The event culminates with a “Day on the Hill” in which all the advocates bus to Capitol Hill together and disperse to meet with their local representatives/their staffs. 
I had two meetings.  The first was with Chaka Fattah (PA – 2nd District).   I was joined by Chris Gruber, whose father has Alzheimer’s, and Laura Putman, who works for the Delaware Valley chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.  Both of them had gotten up at 4:00 am to ride a bus down in time for the meeting. 
The Congressman welcomed us into his office and shook our hands.  Unlike the previous office I’d been in, this one was bright and colorful; the carpet was as plush and soft as turf; photographs and district maps hung on the walls.
A member of his staff joined us; she sat at the corner of his desk with a yellow legal pad.  He sat in a regal leather chair and crossed his legs.   We sat on the couch.
“What can I do for you?” he asked. 
I asked him if anyone in his family had Alzheimer’s Disease. 
“Fortunately not.”
I told him about our legislative asks, how they were crucial for the 5.4 million families struggling with Alzheimer’s across America, and the near 400,000 with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia in PA alone. 
“That’s a Senate Bill, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir, but there is also a version in the House.”
“Oh, right.  I think I already signed that.”
“Respectfully, sir…no, you didn’t.  But we’re hoping you will.”
He turned to his staffer.  “We haven’t co-signed this bill?”
She picked up the phone, clicked the plastic buttons, and whispered with whoever was on the other end for a few seconds.
“No, Congressman, we have not co-signed.”
“Well, now we have.”
*
A few hours later we had a meeting with Congressman Meehan’s D.C. office (every congressman has both a local and D.C. office).  This time Chris and Laura and I were joined by A.J., an advocate from Broomall, Walter, from Landsdale, and Keely, from Media…all within the 7thDistrict. They too had gotten up at 4am to ride the bus. 
Again, Representative Meehan was unavailable, but we did get to meet with his key health staffer.  As we waited in the reception area, reviewing our documents and colorful, bar graph leave-behinds, another member of his staff (a young woman in her mid-20s) stuck her head out the door.
“Matthew?”
“Yes?”
“Hi.”
“Hi.”
“You’re not going to believe this,” she said, “but I knew your grandfather.”
“You…did?”
“He sang in the church choir with my grandfather at St. John Neumann.  They were good friends.  I remember when he got the disease.  Every week after Mass we were introduced to him, like we’d never met.  After the diagnosis, he told my grandfather that he was struggling with this, but he didn’t want any special treatment.  He was aware of it and he wanted things to go on as normally as possible.”
“But how…?”
The health staffer came in and our meeting began.  Not thirty seconds into “the pitch” she interrupted and said that the Congressman had agreed to co-sign not only the legislation we’d come asking for, but another Alzheimer’s bill that I had presented to the home office the month before.  We erupted in applause.  She said the Congressman was happy to do it.  There are so many bills, she said, sometimes they didn’t even know such bills existed.  “Thank you for letting us know,” she said. 
After the meeting, I exchanged business cards with the other young staffer, the one who’d said she’d known my grandfather.  “But how did you figure that out?” I asked, still amazed.
“Oh, I do the scheduling and I saw your name.  I googled you and found your project, read your storybook…and realized I actually knew your grandfather!  I passed it along to my friends…and other staffers, too.”

This is the short version.  There’s so much more that I don’t have the time to cram into a blog post.  But it’s pretty wild, isn’t it?   

So this returns us to our original question.
Everything happens for a reason. 
You were meant to be there.
Such and such was meant to happen.
What do we make of this? 
Here’s what I think: I think maybe there isa greater power in the universe, but it’s not like you read about in The Alchemist…it’s not some crackpot, New Age-y force that is “conspiring” to make our dreams come true if only we’ll do our part and submit to our destiny.
I’m uncomfortable with this way of thinking because it suggests a kind of passivity
We’ll be put where we’re supposed to be?
See what I mean?
No, I reject this.  What I believe is that all of us already are connected; we’re characters in the same story.  Only it’s a huge, very long story and all the characters don’t know one another (yet).  Sometimes we intersect, and our brain isa super-powered storytelling machine that can weave these narrative threads together.  Every one of these meetings is a tiny miracle. 
This is something I’ve been thinking about ever since my first trip across the continent, passing out postcards.  That first trip I met 3,000 strangers in 30 days.  I met so many amazing people—like the Oldest Man on Earth—and it was all so random…that maybe it wasn’t random.  I began thinking about fate.  Was I meant to intersect with that person at that time at that public park in Casper, Wyoming?  How amazing that the librarian in El Paso’s grandfather also had Alzheimer’s. 
Recently I worked with a friend of mine to build a “Fate Calculator” (TM) which estimates to the millionth of a percent what are the odds of intersecting with another human being in any one of the 405 metropolitan areas in the United States.  It’s still in development…but it works. 
As you might guess, in a continent of 307 million people, the odds of stranger intersection are astonishingly small.  You need a microscope to see them.  Though you can map human networks—and the recent explosion of social media has helped us visually conceive of these human networks like never before—still, in the moment, on that street corner in Budapest when you intersect on a street corner with a kid you drove to high school (this happened), or in that Congressman’s office when you realize the staffer knew your grandfather…you can’t help but be overwhelmed. 
Fate or coincidence?
Which is it?


Visual Map of a Human Social Network
You know what I say?

Let’s not give these moments away. 

Let’s not cede them to Fate. 
Instead, we might think of them as the revelation of connections that were there all along, waiting to be found…and that wererevealed, by you, because you got up off your ass and set up a legislative meeting.  Because you talked to a stranger on the train.  Because you made the effort: to see, to speak, to think, to engage, to connect…not coincidentally, the very things that make us human.  
When you begin to think of connectivity this way – as an active pursuit – a new set of better, more productive questions replaces the vague, un-answerable ones.   Who might I meet today?  What is that person’s story?  Where are they going?  Where have they been?  How might we be connected?  How can we help one another?

And even if this connectivity is ultimately controlled by some Greater, Unifying Power—and I’m not saying it isn’t—then it seems to me there is no greater homage to that Power (whatever you choose to call it) than to seek and celebrate these human connections – or tiny miracles – every day.

What a wonderful way to be pious.

To visit your congressman.

To mail a postcard.

To say hello to your neighbor.  

Read the storybook

Have you had one of these extraordinary, surprising, unlikely moments of connectivity?  What do you think?  Share your thoughts/memory in the comments.


11 responses to “The Astonishing Connection Between a Children’s Book, the Internet, an Off-Key Church Choir, Two Unacquainted Young People, and the Advancement of Legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives”

  1. When i came to Drexel University, The most surprising thing was that many people mistakenly thought me as my sister. As my sister is there in this university from last 2 years. Since my childhood , we never thought that we are so familiar to each other but from the time i came in Drexel, this happens so randomly although i do not understand the logic as some people can see the difference whereas some are like “Oh are you twins”, then we have to tell them that we are not twins or we are two years apart. One incidence which i actually cannot believe happened was when i was working at a cafe with my supervisor and one girl came in and said Oh, finally you both are working at a same place again, This surprised me and my supervisor also because that girl, the supervisor and my sister used to work at a same place and they were really close to each other. Although i did not know her but i still answered all the questions she asked. When she left, After that i realized that she mistakenly thought that i am Tamanna( my sister). That was the first day i was working with that supervisor. After this incidence, She told me that even she got confused if i am Tamanna or Tarika. I was almost like “I can’t believe this, she really thought that i am Tamanna”. Before coming to Drexel, I never realized that me and my sister have so familiar look. But now this is like so random question we are asked when we are together or someone who meet me first time and knew my sister before.
    Before this incidence, whenever i met my sister’s friends, they were like ” Oh! you guys look so familiar”. Now some people who know my sister just ask me if i am Tamanna’s sister. Even my professors who previously taught my sister. In my first quarter, my professor asked me if i am Tamanna’s sister. I was quite surprised that almost all the professors remember her. This is the best surprising thing i ever had in my life since i came in Drexel.

  2. Marina Lamanna says:

    In a city like Philadelphia, the size alone can be daunting. Granted, you’re at college, but if you’re one of few at your particular college, then seeing a familiar face would seemingly never occur. And though I’ve had this mindset in place since arriving at Drexel, I’m constantly being disproved. Though I haven’t experienced such a grandiose gesture as Matthew previously stated, my own sense of a “small world” has become completely practical and not out-of-question.

    -I distinctly remember walking up 34th Street. As I encroached on Walnut Street after surpassing Chestnut, I saw the all too familiar mane of a Turkish friend who now attends University of Pennsylvania. I know, the University of Pennsylvania is quite close to Drexel, and it shouldn’t seem out of question to see a former classmate, but when one takes into account the colossal number of undergraduates (not counting grad students) in University City alone, it isn’t in my best odds to see a single individual. As I approached closer, the most bizarre feeling of seeing somebody out of his/her natural territory becomes very noticeable. This was a person I was more used to seeing in passing in high school two years prior, not shuffling down 34th Street.

    -My eight to eleven morning shift at my work study isn’t profoundly entertaining. But Friday morning I received the most particular phone call.

    “Creese Student Center, how may I help you?” I announced into the phone.

    ”Oh hello, I’m from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and I was driving through Pennsylvania the other day and I saw a Drexel Dragons bumper sticker. I’m currently planning my fiftieth high school reunion and our high school’s mascot was also a Dragon. I decided to look into it a bit further and I found that you have a dragon statue.” An endearing older woman chirped into the phone.

    “Yes ma’m, Mario the Magnificent.”

    “Well, I would love to have photos of the statue to incorporate into our reunion…”

    “And nothing on Google sufficed?”

    “No dear, if you could email me a few photos though I would appreciate it so much.”

    …So, I did. After a solid chuckle concerning the phone call with my coworkers, I marched over to Mario the Magnificent and took what I believed a sufficient number of photos to send to my new friend in Fort Lauderdale. And though the interaction was minute, I found it particularly endearing. I suppose since the majority of my family has attended Drexel, I’ve come to value the connection to the school and the interesting connections it can garner.

    My actions and the actions of others weren’t particularly grandiose, but I consider these tiny run-ins an act of fate. For whatever reason, I was supposed to be walking up 34th Street to see an old friend, or to be working when an elderly woman from Fort Lauderdale calls. Fate doesn’t need to be large scale to be relevant.

  3. Jonathan Kelly says:

    Unlikely moments of connectivity happen all around us on a day to day basis, even when we least expect it. Some moments are much more captivating than others but no matter what the situation is, these moments are ones that are sure to keep up on our toes. I have had a substantial amount of these occurrences throughout my life, but one moment stands out in particular; the day when one of my best friends told me that he grew up with one of my closest cousins.
    As a child I had a very select group of friends whom I would hang out with. I guess I was a little picky when it came to that sort of thing. I grew especially close to a guy named Anthony Hopkins (no, it’s not the actor). Anthony and I would spend most of our childhood together playing video games at each other’s houses and swimming in my backyard pool. We did not go to the same school for much of our childhood however. This was the gap that always left a question in my mind as to who else he might befriend since we usually only hung out just as the two of us.
    Little did I know that during this period of time, he was actually making friends with one of my closest cousins. It made sense in my mind. My cousin Ryan was one the coolest guys I knew. He and I shared a lot in common. We both liked video games, bike riding, snowboarding, playing guitar you name it. I couldn’t have pictured a better match for Anthony. The aspect that I found the most intriguing however is that Anthony never mention that he knew my cousin until about a year ago. One day when we were hanging out he nonchalantly asked, “Your cousin isn’t Ryan Kelly is he?” I told him that he was and asked why he brought it up. To my surprise he revealed that he had became friends with him almost as long as he and I were friends. I was very shocked by this news but after a while I sort of kicked myself for not asking if they knew each other before. After all, they did attend to the same school district as one another.
    After we sorted that mess out, the three of us eventually became a very close group. It wasn’t before long that the three of us would start hanging out almost every chance we got. I couldn’t have pictured it any better in my mind. To this day I am still shocked that such a turn of event could have taken place, but I am sure glad they did. Summers just would be the same without the two of those guys.

  4. Eric Horton says:

    Before coming to Drexel, I studied viola performance at a conservatory of music. The classical music world is small; because of the high demands, low pay, and heavy competition of the field, few people decide to enter it. Because there are so few people, the chances of two musicians meeting each other are significantly higher. Students especially are exposed to new people because they often attend national summer festivals. When I first came to my previous school, I couldn’t believe the number of mutual acquaintances my classmates and I shared. There seemed to be two or three degrees of separation between any two given musicians, not six.

    Before my freshman year of college, I attended a summer festival in upstate New York. It was a fairly new program, and so things were often unorganized; master classes and rehearsals were never mandatory, and I think I spent more time by the pool in those two weeks than in the practice room. Despite poor organization and some lewd acts by the directors (which I won’t describe further), the festival was redeemed by the quality of its faculty. One bassist in particular, Joe, was a fantastic guide. He had a great laugh and an incredible sound, and even gave me the names of some alumni of my school-to-be who could answer questions I had. When I left that festival, I was thankful to have made such a valuable connection, but I was sure I would never see him again.

    Almost two years later, I left the classical music world to pursue academic studies at Drexel. After I transferred, my musical involvement dropped substantially; I never practiced my viola, and though I still listened to lots of music I didn’t go to nearly as many concerts. I did go to the Philadelphia Orchestra often, though, and was very surprised one evening to see a familiar face on stage. Joe was playing as the associate principal bassist! I went backstage after the concert to talk to him, and found out that he had won the position shortly before I had met him at the festival a long time ago. He even told me to contact him in the future to discuss opportunities for musical involvement at Drexel. It was a wonderful surprise and an amazing coincidence to have seen him again.

  5. Kamil Kurpaska says:

    Throughout my life, I stumbled upon plenty of people that knew my father or my uncle, both of whom own rather big used automobile businesses. It is because of these businesses, however, that so many people know them and therefore, indirectly, know me. My most recent occurrence happened at a physical therapy office. I spoke to a middle-aged woman at the front desk, and she gave me paperwork to fill out to register to the office. A few days before this, I was involved in a car accident where I was rear ended, which induced my need for therapy for my back. After I finished filling out the paperwork, I got up and returned the clip board to her along with the paperwork. She glanced at it really quickly, and began asking me questions in polish.

    “Are you Jerry’s brother?”

    “No, he’s my uncle”

    “How many of them are here? Is Mario here? Stan? Chris?”

    “Yes, they’re all here.”

    “Who’s son are you?”

    “Mario’s”

    and so our conversation took off. Turns out, this lady actually went to gradeschool with my uncle in Poland, over 30 years ago. She knew my entire family because they were close friends at the time. She came to america about 15 years ago, and lived on the other side of the city. She knew of my uncle having moved to the United States as well, but didn’t ever think they’d run into eachother, or into someone related to either of them atleast. A few minutes of chit chatter went by and I gave her his number, as well as my father’s and other uncle’s. A few days later, they all went out to a big dinner together. It was unbelievable how coincidentally, I was sent to physical therapy on the other side of the city, by my lawyer, and ran into this lady that attended grade school with my uncle, 30 years ago, in a whole other continent. Was this fate? I cannot answer that question. As I myself am unaware of the reality of “fate” and why these things happen. It sure was remarkable though, and Im glad that it happened. Over dinner with both families combined, it turned out that she was more than just my uncle’s good friend from grade school. She was the first girl that he ever had a “crush” on. 30 years later, both of them are still unmarried. Fate? Ok, I lied, maybe it was fate if you think of it this way. Its been about a month and a half now since this happened, and a month since they began “dating”. It’s really an amazing coincidence how 2 people from a different continent ran into each other on a continent thousands of kilometers away, especially two grade school “sweethearts”.

  6. sien j says:

    During my senior year of high school, a friend of mine introduced me to one of her neighbors, Travis. We hung out a few times and eventually began dating. Unfortunately the relationship ended about five months later due to the lack of time we were able to spend with each other. He was professional surfer so his career required him to travel frequently. We remained friends and did our best to stay in contact, but we slowly drifted apart. Months later, after graduating high school, I went to London to visit my cousin. One night my cousin and I went to dinner. While waiting for our food to arrive, I turned around to check if our waiter was nearby so I could get a refill of my drink. Instead I found Travis walking towards me. We stared at each for a good 30 seconds before we realized that we weren’t hallucinating. After our moment of confusion, I got up and we talked. He told me that he was in England for a competition and had a night off to see London.
    I still can’t understand how it was possible for us to see each other thousands of miles away from home, on the one day he was able to go out, in the same restaurant, yet when we lived in the same city, we struggled to see each other.

  7. Sunny Shah says:

    I have experienced many things very similar in my life were it makes you feel like the world is not as small as you think it is. On the first day of Drexel I experienced something very similar, before coming here I really didnt know anyone coming here either from y town or neighboring towns or anybody really. One day one of my parents friends told them that they knew of someone’s son who was also going to attend Drexel in the fall and it turned out to be one of my parents old friends form back then they first came to America they were neighbors and were very close at the time. Also when I and he were little our rents told us that we were also very close. On the first day of move in on campus I finally met with him and it turned out to be very interesting how this we met up after a very long time and ended up going to the same college. Another instance were I had the same experience was when one day I decided to go to the HANs which if you don’t know is Drexel’s dinning center, after getting food he was like I wonder why we have so many friends in common on facebook and after going through them we ended up finding out that he knew most of my family and friends and also that our parents knew each other even though we both came from very different places. All this makes me feel like the world is actually a very small place and not as big as we picture it, I also believe that our lives are like a book it is already written down for us in our faith.

  8. Nisha Sukhia says:

    I feel as if unlikely moments and coincidences happen all the time. Maybe it’s not often enough to be something routine-like, however, enough to say that it is not a rare occurrence. When I was in 7th grade I was performing in a cultural show. My friend Nisha (yes she has the same name) glanced at this boy whom she immediately found attractive. I found him adorable as well. He was also performing, however in a different piece. She told me to do something so that they could meet. However, before anything could happen he returned the glance and signed her to come say hi. So she went to talk to him. However, the whole night her nervous self didn’t talk to him much while I would try to wing woman and put in a good word. I spoke to him a little, as I was her friend. Since the show was the end of the dance season and she lived far away we didn’t talk very much after that night. However, two years passed by and I was at a religious festival. I was standing in the hallway of the building talking to my friends and all of a sudden, a boy came up to me. He said, “Hey, you’re Nisha right?” and I said, “yea that’s me.” And immediately I remembered it was the same guy! So after we spend a few minutes talking it was time to leave. The next day he instant messaged me on the Internet and started talking to me. I asked him how everything was going with Nisha and him and he responded to me saying he never spoke to her after because he didn’t find any interest in her. Suraj and me continued to talk and just within 2 weeks we ended up dating. Everyone said it was too soon and that I didn’t know him well enough but something just felt right. We ended up lasting 5 years till the end of high school and people till this day ask me about him and predict that we will end up together in the future because of how perfect we were. I found it weird that while I was trying to set him up with my friend he was apparently interested in me the whole time and while I thought they would last, they in fact never spoke again. I think it was by fate that he randomly bumped into me at the festival two years later because there were 1000s of people there and the chances were so slim. Guess we were just meant to be…

  9. Aaron Coles says:

    Everything happens for a reason, that’s a phrase I have been saying quite often in addition with my roommate. It’s astounding to really look back and see how the small, subtle difference really can change a situation. If I had left 5 seconds earlier, if I had looked left instead of right, if I had made that insignificant decision to change the channel while watching TV how different my day turns out! These small, minute details are what comprise the grandiose of life. It’s debatable if each minute detail in life is planned or is fate and part of a larger scheme. It has to be agreed on although that these details lead to life changing outcomes. The latter is stating how life is less of a fateful one but more of a series of events dependent on each other. Each decision, action and event that occurs effects what is to come in the future and through these occurrences lives are affected. Each detailed occurrence in life is a building block that builds up to specific outcomes which we cherish and are in awe about. Are these occurrences predetermined to ensure the outcome? Or are they random occurrences which happen to lead to other random occurrences which happen to lead to other random occurrences and so on. It’s an interesting thing to think about and people’s beliefs vary. Personally, I believe that random occurrences comprise life and in fate to some extent as well. Every moment in my life has lead up to the moment I am experiencing right now as I am writing this post. If things had happened just a little differently since I was born this moment possibly would not be going on or it would have happened at a different time or I wouldn’t even still be alive. It’s amazing noting how every significant moment in your life was a result of a constant series of unnoticed events. My belief in fate or at least a predestined plan for my life comes from recognizing how the series of occurrences leads to situations that are so extraordinary and life-changing they cannot be explained any other way.

  10. after spending a year here at Drexel University, I feel at home and welcomed by my peers. Although most people are from the surrounding Philadelphia area, I have seemed to have found a bunch of people from my hometowns surrounding area. I am one of two people, the second being a junior, attending Drexel from my hometown which is an hour and a half away at the jersey shore. i didn’t think i would find many people from my area. as it turns out, the first engineering group i was put in consisted of kids all from my county. and three of the four were from surrounding towns. it was great talking about home who understood the landmarks and unique things in each town. we all have been to each others high schools but we just didn’t know before we got here. some of us even played sports against each other. I started working for intramural sports in the winter term and i was an official for floor hockey. i became friendly with one of the other officials and started talking hockey. we both like the new jersey devils. we started talking about ice and roller hockey and leagues and teams we have played for. as he described the newly finished rink in his town, it seemed very familiar to the neighboring towns rink that i play at frequently. i asked where it was and he said its called deer park. i then said deer park in howell new jersey? and he said yes. we started talking and we ended up playing in the same roller hockey league on two different teams. i also have family in Howell, and he happens to live on the same street as them too. i dont know if its fate or anything but it was funny how all these things tied together.

  11. Patrick Lyden says:

    One time when I was touring Drexel for about the seventh time, I went on a tour of the city as well. My dad took me to the Italian market, and we went into a small cheese store there. I was wearing a sweat shirt from my high school, which was Trinity High School. In the back of the shop, one of the guys working there looked at my sweat shirt and said “Trinity! Is that the Dillsburg Trinity?” Amazed I said yes it is! Although technically, it was in Camp Hill, but Dillsburg is close enough. He went on to tell me that on his first day of college at Drexel, he met a guy by the name of Patrick that went to Trinity, and they have been best friends ever since. This was the most significant time that someone in Philly has recognized my sweat shirt. It has happened many many times since coming to Drexel, and it amazes me, and makes me very happy every time. I am a Religious guy, and I do believe that everything happens for a reason, and I do believe that God is behind it.

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