Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Coincidence, I Think Not, Hump Day Hmm

Today's Hump Day Hmm asks us to "Consider these questions: does the universe (God) prescribe an order? do things happen sometimes too coincidentally to be coincidental? is there a design? how is it that sometimes things come to us, just when we need them most?"

I tend to fall in the category of those who believe things happen for a reason, or that coincidence is just a fancy word for things are meant to happen a certain way. One of the best stories I know about happy coincidences happens to be a big part of my own, so like last week, I could not write on this topic without telling this story.

When I had been out of college about two years and a half years, I felt a prompting to return to school for my MBA. I did not think such a prompting came from myself because I was still feeling somewhat burnt out after flying through my undergraduate in three years between two schools. So, being a spiritual person, I prayed about the feeling. I also picked up a GMAT preparation book with practice software. I studied for a few weeks, and finally I signedup to take it. I prayed the night before, "Lord, if you want me to go back to school, help my mind be clear so I might do my best and be able to get in." I did not ask to receive the answers to the test or for the Lord to take it for me, but simply to do my best.

The next day, I drove an hour away to take the test. The whole time I was taking it, I did not feel like I was doing very well, except on the writing portion. I came very close to cancelling the scores instead of sending them, but I decided to let the answer to my prayer go out, regardless of the score. When I first saw it, I thought it was just an example, so sure I was that it could not be my score. It was mine, though, and my answer was clear. I had scored in the 99th percentile overall, which guaranteed I could get paid to go back to graduate school at the school of my choice, my alma mater, the University of Georgia. I wanted to go back to UGA to give my best, since I felt like the two years I'd spent there before were far from it. I had hated my first school so much that I was a shell of my former self as I simply did my best to graduate. Getting a second chance was important to me. I was on a true spiritual high.

Around the time I was feeling my faith so strongly, I met my wife. I have played many hours of games on Yahoo, and I have had many wonderful conversations with interesting people. I have even made a few friends there, though I've lost touch with most of them. So I had no expectation whatsoever that I would find my wife playing pool on Yahoo. I am sure she would say the same. Yet, I was so excited to tell anyone about what I was feeling, that it naturally came up in conversation with this lovely young woman. She was headed to get her bachelors after an associates, so we were in similar places in life - both in transition. I learned through our conversation that she was also a person who listened to spiritual promptings when it came to making life decisions, and she had changed her major from criminal justice to music because of such a prompting. She had completed many extra hours of coursework to still graduate on time with honors in her new area, so it was not a simple choice she had made. We both understood how faith can sometimes compel us to do very difficult things.

We spent several hours talking that first night, finding many common interests. I suggested a book to her that I had just read a short time before. The next day when we chatted again, she told me it was very good. That was her way of letting me know she had gone to the library and read it. I was duly impressed. We continued our conversation over several days, her home for Christmas and me preparing myself to leave the working world and head back to school. I asked her if, when she returned to school, I might call her. She agreed, as long as her roommates were okay with it. They screened me - after five minutes I was okay, but they enjoyed talking to me so much that itwas an hour before she got on the phone. We had a lovely chat - several, in fact, over the next few weeks. Then one day I said, "The Olympics are coming to Salt Lake, and I would like to see what the city looks like, since I'm from another recent Olympic city. Can I see you?" Her school was near there, some 2,600 miles from my home. Again, she agreed, so long as I didn't mind her roommates coming along. So, when I don't feel like explaining I met my wife online, I tell people where we met in person: a bowling alley. We had a wonderful time, and, after a weekend enjoying each other's company, we agreed not to speak to each other anymore.

I know, that part of the story usually throws people off, but that's what happened. We did not share a common faith, at least not completely, and we both had too much respect for each other to expect the other to change. We also knew our beliefs were too strong to simply be ignored. After all, it was our faith that first brought us together. So, we went our separate ways, only emailing occasionally.

Summer came, and I started my thirteen month program in Athens. She had moved to Washington to be with her brother where she had more opportunity to find work while she waited to attend Idaho State in the fall. I was sitting through several classes of refresher courses designed to remind those who had been out of school a while how to handle statistics and finance. Many of my classmates began chatting to stay awake during the lectures on the bell curve. Then one day, my friend was online from her brother's home. Naturally, I struck up a conversation. She tried to discourage me, but I pressed on, letting her know I was not missing anything by talking to her, too. She was home alone, her nieces and nephews gone to various camps or jobs, and her shift was not for a while yet. We had a lovely chat, and she agreed to let me chat with her again.

This time our conversations took a rather different turn very often. I had, because of the way we parted, studied her religion quite a bit. I naturally love to learn, and comparative religion is certainly a subject I find interesting. Unfortunately, much of what I found tended to be what I would now call anti-Mormon. She was, after all, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. I shared some of what I learned, and I found her to be extremely knowledgeable about her religion, as well as the counterpoints I was expressing. Time and again, I found she understood the criticisms of her church very well, and I was left wondering why someone would so readily accept something so foreign to me.

Our conversations on faith continued even as she went back to school. She was in a place where she knew no one, and most of her roommates were not terribly friendly to her. I offered to call her, just so she could hear the voice of a friend on the line. She was thankful and agreed to let me call. We talked many night, but we both respected each others' busy schedules. We were trying to get degrees. I made a lot of friends, and I was really enjoying my whole experience. The environment I found myself in opened my eyes to new experiences more than anything I had ever been around before. I was a long way from the simple life of the day-to-day working world that was so often the same thing over and over.

Here I must digress a moment to share several encounters that an outside observer might easily suggest happened by, well, coincidence. My MBA class all went through a ropes course together. The goal was to help us bond, and I would say we did. We went in two groups of twenty. During the course, I met two people who would play an interesting role in the rest of my year. There were two guides who were there to insure our safety and help us enjoy our experience to the utmost. One of them was loud, did most of the talking, and made it clear he was the person in charge. I doubt I could pick him out of a lineup if the rest of the people in it where twice his size. The other guy, though, said very little, but his natural warmth and interest came across in his actions and his attitude. I saw him several times on campus and enjoyed conversations with him. The other person I met and got to know that day was a classmate who had previously seemed very unapproachable to me. She was so different that day that I felt comfortable striking up a conversation with her. I realized her demeanor in class had a lot to do with her commuting two hours each day for class, which lasted eight hours a day. She was thoroughly worn out. I suggested she move to campus, and she said she had been unable to find a place she liked. I told her about how much I loved my apartment complex and told her I'd gladly give her a reference if she was worried. She took my suggestion and within a week she was ready to move in. We had formed the beginnings of a great friendship.

My classmate is definitely someone I give a lot of credit when it comes to my wife. One day we were discussing life, just taking a break from the fast-paced course load, and we ended up talking about people we admired. I told her about "this girl I met online".

She said, "Robert, you love this girl!" I shook my head, but she pressed on.

I said, "Well, it will never happen, so there's no point in worrying about that anyway."

She looked me square in the eye and said, "If you're trying to tell me it's because you live far apart, I'm not listening." She was, after all, telling me about her dear friend in Germany, and she was a Bulgarian living in the United States. "If that is the only reason, then that is silly."

I let her know that there was more, but she wasn't seeing it. Finally I explained, "Well, she and I go to different churches. We don't believe the same things." Again, my friend thought I was being stupid. She grew up under the Iron Curtain, almost completely unfamiliar with religion. Why then should such a silly thing as church stop something as important as true love. I was unable to adequately explain it to her, which left me feeling inadequate when it came to explaining it to myself. As I said, I give my friend a lot of credit when it comes to why I married my wife.

So, here I was, in a place so full of newness and change, talking to a girl across the country about a religion I had only encountered briefly in my past. The first girl I dated was a Mormon, and I had always thought, If I could just find a girl like her who wasn't a Mormon, I would be very lucky. I would say I came close. That first girl is still a good friend of ours, and she is better friends with my wife than with me now. I have digressed. But then, this entire story seems like a very digressive affair whenever I tell it. So many little details, chance encounters, and intriguing elements come to light in the telling. Hopefully it explains why I have so little appreciation for the word "coincidence."

Our conversations continued, sometimes growing heated. We could tell there was a mutual attraction, but we both tried to look past it. I encouraged her to live her life and date people, and she did the same for me. We both wanted happiness for each other, and we could not see past this obstacle between us. We definitely had a lot of mutual admiration beyond our attraction. We were friends, true friends. The chance at love just seemed like a dream. I was forced to consider a lot of things, though, before I could stomach giving up that hope, that chance I had found my someone special. So I spent a lot of time praying again. I was in a Sunday School class at the church I was attending in Athens that had chosen to discuss the topic of marriage, of all things. I asked the teacher, one of my professors, a lot of questions on the subject, and I studied out those questions for myself in the scriptures. I kept finding so many answers that made more sense in my wife's belief system than they did in my own.

And then another coincidence came up. I was working on a business plan, and the only similar business my team could find in the whole United States happened to be in Kearns, UT, just south of Salt Lake. My wife was again home for Christmas break, but I knew she would be heading back to Idaho soon. I suggested that I plan my trip to Utah to meet her again. She did not like the idea, thinking I was making up an excuse to see her, but eventually she agreed to see me. I also added one other thing to our visit: I wanted her to bring me a copy of the Book of Mormon. I had previously refused to read it over and over, so she knew this was a major concession for me. She agreed to bring it, and we met at a mall across from the Salt Lake Temple.

We spent the afternoon touring Temple Square, hanging out with two other couples (both of whom are married now), and generally having a lovely time. The attraction we had been kindling was clear, even to those around us. When the afternoon ended, we were reluctant to separate. She brought out the book, telling me of her fear that giving it to me might make me hate her. I was troubled by the sentiment, and I realized how stridently I had argued against her beliefs. I took the book back to my hotel and started reading the passages she recommended, and then began at the beginning.

I immediately recognized it as gospel. I had spent the last several years studying the Bible, teaching Sunday school and two Bible study groups. I was more familiar with how it felt to read gospel than I was when I first dated a Mormon. I knew I had another difficult decision to make. I prayed, sometimes for hours. I walked through the woods by my apartment and prayed in that quiet place. I prayed as I drove to and from the airport as I flew to other businesses like the one we were planning to start - my team only found them after my trip to Utah. Then I had a powerful answer to my prayers, and I called my wife. I made it clear that I was ready to join her church. She wanted me to immediately call the missionaries, who would give me the discussions that each new member goes through. I let her know that I could ask my classmate who had graduated from BYU. She pressed, but I assured her I would not change my mind. That classmate, who was never on the classroom chats as a rule, happened to be on one that day. I asked him to find the missionaries for me, and he did. When I explained to them what my plans were, they were surprised, since very few people call the missionaries who already plan to join. When I told them where I lived, they said, "I think we might know the place."

They did, because it turned out that a pair of sister missionaries lived downstairs (another coincidence). I went to church that first Sunday, expecting not to know anyone (my classmate went to a different branch of the church in the area, but I wanted to attend with fellow students who might not be so much older and wiser than me). As I walked in, I immediately saw the young man from the ropes course (I hadn't forgotten him). His wife taught the Sunday School class I attended. I also saw a guy I had watched football games with repeatedly, and then another who I remembered from a chance encounter at the grocery store. Then I met three young men from the town I had just moved away from. I went expecting not to know anyone, and instead I found a place where I felt more at home than almost anywhere else on campus.

My wife and I have now been married nearly five years. Last month marked five years since I joined, in fact. In those five years, I have moved across the country twice, I have gotten married, had two children, bought into my family business, bought my first home, and enjoyed several other special landmarks in my spiritual and worldly life. It has certainly not been easy, but I have felt truly blessed.

It might be easy to look at all the things that led up to me going back to school, having the encouragement of friends to follow my heart, meeting several Mormons along the way, and eventually joining my current church as mere coincidence. I prefer to look at it as I do, a series of preparatory events in a long line of other events that helped me step outside of my normal path and consider something new, but also something that was right for me. I am absolutely glad I made the choice I did, and I am glad to have experienced it all. Was it all coincidence? I think not.

-- Robert

Editor's note: My wife read this story and said "But you haven't proven they aren't just coincidences." Perhaps I haven't, but I did not write the story as proof. I wrote it to demonstrate a series of coincidences that I see as more than, well, coincidence. My apologies to anyone looking for "proof."


Julie Pippert said...

Your romance is a lovely and touching tale. :)

I don't think that things happen for a reason, per se. I can't apply that as a principle.

There is no good reason my good friend is gong back for a second surgery after months of chemo because they didn't get all the cancer. And her with a 2 and 4 year old. No good reason.

Later, often, when we look back, we can see a pattern, a fractal in the chaos if you will, and/or make peace with where we ended up, even if it's not where we meant to be.

And if we are blessed, we can make something good in the middle of it. So I agree with that point of yours, definitely.

Melissa said...

See, that's where I differ from Julie. I do believe things happen for a reason. That reason may totally stink, but it is a reason.

Great story. Thanks for sharing.

Suki said...

That is really a very moving tale, and a beautiful introduction to your blog :)

I wish I could reply more fully, but after my post and comments on Julie's and Melissa's blog.. I don't really have anything new to say.

I'm blogrolling you, hope you don't mind.

le35 said...


I think that there are some bad times in life, but I think even those things happen for a reason. It's through those trials that we think we shouldn't be dealing with that we go through the refiner's fire. Those chances are our opportunities to grow and learn how much the Savior can take on for us if we'll let him.

le35 said...

This is one of my favorite stories in the world. I'm hoping to turn it into a novel someday.

Robert said...

I'm definitely more in line with Melissa's and Ellie's thinking on "things happen for a reason." I've had enough rotten things happen that really helped me strengthen my faith and my resolve to realize that without them, I might be a very naive chump. I think it's very hard for your friend to go through that surgery, Julie, and I won't dare suggest a "reason" because it's simply not my place to. That said, it doesn't mean there isn't *A* reason, but like you said, perhaps not a *good* reason.

Suki, I'm glad you enjoyed the story, and hopefully I can live up to your expectations in future posts. Feel free to read through my last ninety-nine, if you want to get to know me better. I'm glad to earn my way on to another blogroll anyway I can.

Thanks to everyone for the comments. I was worried a lot of the day that my story was too long, since no one commented for a long time, and then I see five comments today. Thanks for the pick-me-up.

Robert said...

I'd like to turn the story into a novel, too, for the record, and some day we may well develop one together. Our story is certainly complex enough to make a Lifetime movie out of. I just have to find the time and motivation to start writing like that again. I haven't written a book seven years or more. It's somewhat disheartening to continually write things and know they stink. :)

Angela said...

Sorry for being so late commenting (swamped with work, etc). You present a lovely story which illustrates that life is a journey which often works out in mysterious ways. It was really great to hear it.

Robert said...

Better late than never, right? Thanks for commenting, Angela. I'm glad you liked it. I still look back at times at this story and have to remind myself I lived it. I don't even have to romanticize the details much, either. They amaze even me. It would be fun to write it into a novel one day.