Epiphany or Apophany; or, Sometimes, Stuff Just Happens

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“Whenever anything negative happens to you, there is a deep lesson concealed within it, although you may not see it at the time.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

With all due respect, Mr. Tolle – bullshit.

Sometimes, negative things happen, and there is no lesson. Things happen beyond our control, out of the blue, beyond our wildest imagination – and it’s just the universal forces in motion. There is no lesson, no higher message – things happen, and sometimes what happens really sucks.

One of my HR colleagues had a sign in her office that read, “What’s great about this?” Whenever an employee came to her with a problem, she’d point to the sign and require them to give an answer before she’d continue the discussion.  If she’d done that to me (I was not an employee there, thank the gods), my response would have been, “What’s great about this is that I realize what an utterly useless way of managing internal issues this is, and I quit so I can work somewhere that isn’t run by idiots.”

Sometimes, there is a lesson.  You drink too much alcohol one night, make an idiot of yourself, get sick, anger your friends, and lose two days to a miserable hangover. The lesson is pretty clear – don’t drink to excess.

Sometimes, there is no lesson.  My mother died in an accident during my last week of classes in my final semester of college.  I took four “Incompletes”, and it took me three months to finish my course week and my honors thesis, in between settling her estate, dealing with the lawsuit against the other driver who caused the accident, and moving myself to California.  What was the lesson there? Be sure to ask your parents to schedule their untimely deaths around your academic obligations and moving schedule?

Apophenia (as defined on Wikipedia: “the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data”) can a real problem. How do we know when something is a real pattern, or when we are imposing meaning that isn’t there? (I encourage you to read the entire article – the origin of the term “apophany” in psychiatric research dealing with schizophrenia will keep you up for a night or two.)

The counterpoint experience is “epiphany”, which our friends at Dictionary.com define as “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something” – seeing based on patterns that are actually present. Yes, we all see things differently, and what is “real” for one person might not be “real” for another. But at the point we wish so hard for something to be “real” – despite our own knowledge that it is not – we have crossed from epiphany to apophany.

As Tarot readers, we look for patterns in the cards. How many Major Arcana cards are in the spread? Court cards? How many of each minor suit? Are there repeating numbers? Repeating symbols?

Someone who has a large number of Major Arcana cards in the spread is probably in or heading for one or more life transitions. Someone with lots of Pentacle cards may be dealing with work or housing issues. Someone with lots of Cups cards probably has relationship work to do, in one form or another. The pattern can help the client focus on the issues and devise creative approaches to managing them.

But sometimes, there is no pattern. The cards are randomly and evenly distributed among the suits. There are no number patterns. There are no repeating symbols. There’s no big epiphany, no flashing neon message – just disparate pieces of information for the client to apply to their life as they are able.

When bad things happen (we lose a job, a valued possession breaks, or someone close to us dies), we feel an emotional void, and we want to ascribe meaning to the event as a way to manage our emotions.  This is a classic left brain coping mechanism – “if I can understand it, I can manage it”.

Sometimes, there is no meaning – our employer decides to cut costs, and we’re laid off; the tectonic plates shift, and a treasured piece of porcelain falls to the floor and smashes; we’re all human, and we will all shuffle off this mortal coil at some point.

Sometimes, it’s just random, and stuff just happens. Sometimes, there is no meaning, no understanding – sometimes, there is only acceptance.

9 Responses to “Epiphany or Apophany; or, Sometimes, Stuff Just Happens”

  1. Great article although I think there is more to it than just that. It is said that everything in life is either necessity or chance (Democritus among others) – chance being accident. Necessity is fixed, so the only thing truly new is accident. It doesn’t matter what an accident means. As something new it can only have whatever meaning we give to it – however uncertain that is. What really counts is what we make of it. These are the moments of true freedom. If giving meaning to an accident helps us make something worthwhile out of it – then more power to it.

  2. Wonderful post. I am reminded of a favorite quote from Babylon 5:

    “You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.”

  3. Mary – Thanks for the comment! Ascribing meaning to an event can help us cope with it, and sometimes that’s a healthy response. I think it’s equally healthy, however, to accept the randomness of events, and just move on. For me, there was no message in my mother’s death in that car accident – basic laws of physics state that two objects cannot occupy the same space simultaneously, and the laws of physics always win.

    One of the things that concerns me is when a client assigns meanings that are clearly unhealthy – for example, “I dreamed about my ex-boyfriend, so that means he’s coming back to me, right? And my friend’s cousin said she thinks he’s unhappy with his new girlfriend, and she’s always right about stuff, so he must be missing me and he’ll break up with her and come back to me.” (An extreme example, but most readers have probably heard something like this.) It’s a coping mechanism, but a negative one because it keeps the person from healing and moving on.


  4. Charlie – That’s great! Yes, I think we should all be grateful that sometimes what goes around doesn’t come back around right away.


  5. Wonderful post. One of the corollaries is that people rush to gratitude during a difficult situation and bypass giving vent to their rage, anger, disappointment, and their general reaction to the shittiness of it all.

    Sometimes crap is crap. One of my favorite Hallmark cards says on the front, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” And on the inside it says, “When life hands you a load of crap, don’t make anything of it. Trust me on this.”

    Which for me sums it up quite nicely. As did you.

  6. Gail – What a nice way to sum it up – and from Hallmark!

    Thanks for the comment!


  7. Gail – love that Hallmark quote and I understand that sometimes we just need to accept that things are shitty and walk away. And, Anastasia, I agree that some meanings ascribed to events are clearly unhelpful.

    I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s _Trickster Makes This World_ and he points on in his chapter on Ifa divination that it is precisely on the rubbish heap where accidents are thrown that something truly new can emerge into the world. Accidents are precisely the coincident or convergence of two unrelated paths (each if which may have their own causes). Trickster exists at such crossroads. We can take “meaning” out of the equation and instead ask what we can make of this new thing. [Hyde, refreshingly, avoids any Jungianisms.]

    That’s why I like the idea that the purpose of Tarot is to help us meet whatever comes in the best possible way. I find that both meaning and gratitude can help me do this, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t also welcome tears, rage, anger and grief. They are “what is” and deserve their place. I just don’t want to stay stuck in them.

  8. Mary – That sounds like a terrific book. Thanks for letting us know about it!


  9. I wholeheartedly agree. Sometimes “Shit Just Happens.”

    Love your writing! Thank you…