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When Only the Irrational Seems Rational

Unbeknownst to me, wandering around my neighborhood at that very time was author Mary Karr. In her memoir, Lit, Karr describes recovering from alcoholism not far from where I was having my existential crisis. Karr, it turns out, was having her own uncommon experience, and it had to do with two specific scriptural passages a friend insisted she read. Karr found those passages—and only those—marked with blue chalk in her mother's childhood Bible. "As miracles go," Karr writes, "it may not even seem like one. But it feels as if God once guided my mother's small hand...to make two notes I'd very much need to find 70 years later." Karr asks her mathematically gifted sister, "What are the odds—in terms of probability—that those two passages would've been marked of all the verses possible. And she says, Very slender."

I have to say, I quietly thrill to this logic, the logic of probability. In the "hard sciences," like physics, identical conditions lead to identical results: Drop a rock and it falls, always. But people are less predictable than rocks. Not everyone follows trends; not everyone benefits from therapy; not everyone liked Avatar. So social scientists use statistics to decide whether an event is random chance—or the effect of a specific cause. They think in probabilities, not absolutes.

When I learned about probability theory back in the 1980s, bizarrely improbable things were happening to me. But weirder still, putting aside my "I believe in miracles" brackets and looking at my life from the perspective of a sociology student didn't make my woo-woo experiences seem less miraculous but more so. Thanks to my training in statistics, I realized that the odds of these things happening by chance were enormously improbable. Every worldview I chose, it seemed, edged me toward belief.

Whether you've seen angels floating around your bedroom or just found a ray of hope at a lonely moment, choosing to believe that something unseen is caring for you can be a life-shifting exercise. Even if you're the kind of person who makes Doubting Thomas look like a lightweight, decide, just until you finish this article, to set aside your disbelief. To begin the bracketing process, start with these instructions:

1. List five important people in your life, not including members of your family of origin. Did anything improbable happen to bring you together with these people? Write down any coincidences or synchronicities you can remember.

2. Recall five experiences that dramatically changed your life: a chance meeting, accident, adventure, medical crisis. Did any unusual events enable you to have—and survive—these experiences?

3. Think of five important events in your career and/or your role as a parent. Looking back, did help ever arrive improbably just when you needed it?

4. Remember any weird-but-true experience in your life. Did you have a dream one night that later came true? Did a stranger, song, or book ever get your attention and answer an important question? Did you once use new computer software without making 500 calls to tech support? Make a list.

Okay, you've bracketed everything you've written down, choosing to believe that there might be something beyond mere coincidence. But the emphasis is on the word might. Now, stepping into your social scientist mode, review the lists, asking yourself, "What are the odds that this improbable event or that particular meeting is the result of something bigger than me?" If you need help taming your inner skeptic, think of psychologist Abraham Maslow: He warned against coming under the sway of "the antirational, the antiempirical, the antiscientific," but he also wrote, "To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous." A rigorously trained social scientist, he found that seeing everything as miraculous was only logical.

When I consider all the strange occurrences framed by the brackets in my mind, I have to agree. Bracketing has turned all my experiences, remembered and present, into a gallery of miracles where I wander around dazzled by the beauty of events I cannot explain. You might want to create such a gallery yourself. You need only your bracketing mind, your sense of what's probable—and a world filled with moments of grace, strange synchronicities, and perhaps (who knows?) the occasional bedroom full of guardian angels.

Martha Beck's most recent book is Steering by Starlight (Rodale).

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