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🦋 Supernatural Aid
Serendipity and synchronicity
We are discussing the stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Campbell proposed a monomyth, a universal story arc called the hero’s journey, that he said was found in myths and stories from cultures around the world. The hero sets forth on an adventure (departure), faces obstacles and trials (initiation), is victorious over them, and returns with boons and gifts to share with the rest of the world (return). The hero’s journey can be an external adventure though it always involves an inner transformative journey. You might be familiar with books or movies that use this arc (for example, Star Wars). In your life, you might look for parallels where you overcame your fears, the discouragement of others, or external blocks and took steps towards a goal. Maybe you had to learn new skills, take on rivals, and do things that pulled you out of your comfort zone, and regardless of the outcome, engaging with this process changed you forever.
You can read each post as a standalone or part of the hero's journey series.
Hello, and welcome! What do you think of when you hear the words supernatural aid? Do you think of otherworldly, magical figures extending a helping hand when you least expect it or of fortuitous coincidences that defy explanation? I think it’s fair to say that each of us might have a story of unlikely, serendipitous moments strung together as though by magic, and you don’t know or understand how it could’ve happened the way it did.
Today, I'm sharing a story from thirty years ago as an example of such lucky happenstance.
At age 18, I returned to India to attend medical college. My parents were living, and working, in a different country at that time. The first semester was an intense period with many things to learn and adjust to, including roommates, routines, food, and academics. Plus, I was living in a new city. I was homesick that first semester, and I missed my family terribly.
So, when there was an unexpected holiday in the middle of the semester- I think there was a strike- I decided to take the train to visit my grandfather who lived in the next state, 8-10 hours away. I hadn't traveled alone by train before this, and though I was nervous, the homesickness won out.
The small train station was noisy and crowded. The man behind the ticket counter told me the only tickets available were in the Unreserved compartment, a first-come, first-seated space that was usually extremely crowded. I might have to stand for 8 hours, but I didn't care. I just wanted to go home.
I got on the wrong train.
I think I might’ve misheard the platform number. I knew the train was leaving soon, so I didn't stop to check the signs on the train. I saw another student, who I thought was from the same city, getting into the train, so I assumed it was the right one.
Anyway, I got on the wrong train, and the problem was I didn't find out until about eight at night, almost at the end of the journey.
I'd found a seat, and enjoyed some spicy biryani and hot tea. I was excited about seeing family soon. I knew the cities on the way to my grandfather's hometown, and when the train pulled into the stop just before mine, I knew I was almost home.
That's when the middle-aged woman in the seat opposite me spoke.
"Where are you going?"
The woman hadn't said a word in all the hours of traveling together. She'd politely looked away every time we made eye contact and resumed her reading.
When I answered, she looked puzzled. "This train doesn't go there."
"Yes, it does," I said, laughing, "it's the next stop, only an hour away."
"When the train leaves this station, it turns north, away from where you want to go."
She gestured urgently towards the station outside the window. "You have to get down and take another train."
When I continued to look vacantly at her, she said, "Listen, you are on the wrong train! The next stop is north of here, and we will stop there in the middle of the night. It will be harder to get another train from there because it’s a much smaller town. You don’t wan’t to be stranded alone in the middle of nowhere."
By now, the other passengers were looking at me, and more heads started to nod.
"Look, there's the TC! You should go talk to him," said someone else, gesturing to a uniformed man with a clipboard who, at that very moment, was talking to someone just outside our window.
I was 18, incredibly naive, and exhausted after the first few months of college. Now, I was also in a state of shock. I picked up my backpack and stumbled out of the train. I didn't know what I was going to do. I had very little money with me (I was going home and hadn't thought of anything else beyond that), and I didn't know if there was a train at this time of the night or if I would have to wait in the station overnight. Every worrisome story I had heard about traveling alone at night went through my head.
The TC (I think it stands for Ticket Checker or Collector), when I described my predicament to him, shook his head in amazement.
"Young lady," he said incredulously, "this is your lucky day. Another train will be here in just a few minutes. It's the one you should've originally gotten on. It’s one of those limited stops train and it usually gets here earlier, but it’s delayed today. It runs only once a week, so if this happened any other day… Listen, just get yourself a ticket from the counter and get into that train."
I got home safely. I didn't even need to buy a ticket because of the kindness of some strangers who, overhearing my conversation with the TC, ran and bought it for me, so that I wouldn’t miss the next train. As the train I'd arrived on left, I saw the middle-aged woman had returned to her book, though some of the other passengers waved to me.
When the next train pulled into the station, I hesitated on the platform, checking and cross-checking that it was the right train, before mustering the courage to get in.
I didn't even have to make any explanations to my family because I arrived on the train they expected me to have taken.
I’ve always wondered what made the woman speak to me at precisely that moment. Was it just a happy coincidence? Coincidence or not, I was incredibly grateful to each one of the strangers who made sure I got home.
In the first section of his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell says heroes who have accepted the call of adventure meet mentor figures, wise men or women, who step forward to help the hero. They show up unexpectedly, and offer supportive wisdom and protective talismans to the hero.
“For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
It’s important to remember the hero might meet such a person or there’s a hitherto unknown part of the hero himself that steps forward in response to the call of adventure.
Campbell also says,
“What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny. The fantasy is a reassurance—promise that the peace of Paradise, which was known first within the mother womb, is not to be lost; that it supports the present and stands in the future as well as in the past (is omega as well as alpha); that though omnipotence may seem to be endangered by the threshold of the world. One has only to know and trust, and the ageless guardians will appear. Having responded to their own call, and continuing to follow courageously as the consequences unfold, the hero finds all the forces of the unconscious at their side. Mother Nature herself supports the mighty task. And in so far as the hero's act coincides with that for which their society itself is ready, they seem to ride on the great rhythm of the historical process.” ― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
(I really like the idea of supernatural aid but that caveat, “….in so far as the hero’s act coincides with that for which…” always puts me on alert!)
Where, in your life, have you experienced supernatural aid?
“Synchronicity is the coming together of inner and outer events in a way that cannot be explained by cause and effect and that is meaningful to the observer.”
— Carl Jung
This is a vast topic spanning science and myth1, and I am not going to be able to do justice to it here, but according to the dictionary, synchronicity is “the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.”
While reading something, you remember a friend from twenty years ago. You haven’t seen them for a long time, and you wonder where they are and what they are doing. Later in the day, you hear a knock and open the door. You are shocked to see it’s the same friend you’ve been thinking about. That’s a dramatic case of synchronicity. Jung called it an “acausal connecting principle”.
Or, you are going through a period of intense life changes. You have nightly dreams about a vivid blue and black butterfly and later, while walking, a similar butterfly alights next to you. That, too, is a synchronicity.
I’d love to hear what you think about supernatural aid and synchronicity. How have you experienced it? Do you think it’s simply a case of magical thinking (I wrote about it two weeks ago) or do you think there’s something more to this idea? I’ll meet you in the comments below!
Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way has a section on synchronicity that I’ve found really useful; for a more in-depth reading there is C.G. Jung’s book, Synchronicity, and Allan Combs and Mark Holland’s Synchronicity, Through the eyes of science, myth, and the trickster.