Who sets the rhythm to your life?
You are at the supermarket doing groceries. Around the same time, your youngest child is suddenly hurt, being driven to the hospital. You, of course, have no way of immediately knowing what is happening somewhere else, and in this case, what is happening to your child. But, a strange feeling takes over as you get to the vegetable aisle. You feel a pain in your head. Something is wrong, but you can’t pinpoint what. Just then, the phone rings to tell you that your child has suffered a head injury.
In this scenario, is there a connection between that pain in your head and the injury suffered by your child at precisely the same time? If you are even slightly scientifically-minded, I would guess that the answer is a no. There is no direct causality between those two events. The laws of physics can’t explain something like that, but mere probabilistic coincidence can. Things happen, and sometimes they happen at the same time in different places.
If you had asked the late psychiatrist Carl Jung this same question, however, you would have gotten a different answer. Jung believed that there were interactions that could occur beyond direct cause and effect, interactions in a deeper realm of consciousness outside of the world of matter in a way that we have yet to understand. In the case of you and your child, he believed that it would be possible for there to exist a connection in a separate metaphysical plane of meaning that tangled the two of you so that you could experience a kind of synchronicity in time, across space.
This idea of synchronicity is one of his more controversial ideas because it leaves the door open for the existence of paranormal events that we don’t have any strong evidence for. Interestingly, Jung himself was inspired by Albert Einstein. The two had exchanged ideas over dinner in the early days of Einstein’s career when he was still hashing out his theory of relativity. The seeds that were planted in these interactions then led Jung to another physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, who continued to work on this idea with him. While today Jung’s approach is widely shunned in the scientific community, its foundations, at least, weren’t entirely insane.
But regardless of the scientific rigor of Jung’s metaphysical speculation, the core mental model here is valuable when looking at how humans interact and coordinate. In mammals, for example, instances when a mother spends a disproportionate amount of time caring for her young, the nervous system of the child and the mother do begin to synchronize. In fact, a big part of the mother’s job is simply to be present in such a way as to regulate the young child because it can’t yet fully regulate itself. Something similar is observed in people who are in love. Over time, partners begin to breathe in similar patterns, able to unconsciously transfer both stress and joy onto another.
Removing the mystical aspect of synchronicity, it is clearly something that we do with each other. Love and connection and intimacy are all forms of temporary synchronization that exist in some plane of meaning that we understand unconsciously even if this plane isn’t capable of projecting things across the Universe beyond the laws of physics.
We can also apply this on a broader scale. When people work together in a corporation or even a nation, they are synchronizing. There is shared meaning that is created by their interactions. At the highest level, the fact that we are all globally bound to a 24-hour clock that measures output and efficiency by the minute and the hour is the most obvious example of this. Synchronicity is about time coordination, and time coordination allows us to create deeper meaning with each other. It allows our individual selves to temporarily merge in the name of something greater.
But this begs an important question: If synchronicity is what allows us to create meaning with each other, what is it that allows us to become more of who we are within our individual concept of self?
We are all a complex mix of the total interactions that we have had with other people. Our shared meanings make us. But we are also more than that. We have a physical body that is genetically predisposed in a different direction than that of our friends and our neighbors. The sum total of the environmental stimuli that we consume from the physical world of matter is also different from that of any other living person. And, of course, the way we interpret all of these things with our own personal, intimate thinking patterns is also different, also individualized.
Individualization contributes to shared meaning, just as shared meaning contributes to individualization. And if synchronicity is what feeds that process of shared meaning, then it must be so that asynchronicity, the opposite, is what primarily feeds the individualization process. If synchronization is a shared rhythm across time, then asynchronization is simply the personal rhythm of being.
Throughout the ages, philosophers have laid out many templates for how to live. Questions of happiness and virtue and flourishing have been answered, again and again, but the only thing the collective seems to aggregate into is a mosaic showing many diverse paths to the same end. Modern psychology also lays out similarly diverse paths. There is, of course, the Jungian tradition, but there is also Maslow and Rogers and Skinner and Adler and Bandura and countless more. In fact, psychology often takes it further — it gives us stages of development relative to age, experience, and wisdom.
All of this, however, is only useful relative to the degree that it helps an individual find their own asynchronous rhythm, the tempo of their own personal existence of being. The more we synchronize with others, their time — say, the 24 hours of the world — the more meaning we can potentially expose ourselves to. But the more we lose ourselves in these constructs rather than in the meaning itself, the more we lose our personal individuality. Authentically synchronizing with a loved one as you lay in bed together at night is one thing, but being forced to abide by a schedule enforced by someone else is an entirely different matter.
Modern capitalism is a perfect example of this tension. It aims to be purely efficient, with particular units of time representing particular units of wealth. In fact, the notion of arriving at exactly the right minute for the purposes of work wasn’t even a consideration before the Industrial Revolution. But it made sense if we were to synchronize the efforts of a large group of people to produce something of value, and so, the 24-hour clock became our master. Now, many people cherish the kind of tempo that this creates, and for them, this system satisfies the rhythmic needs of both the shared meaning and the individualization aspects of their life. Most people, however, lose themselves entirely if they do this for too long.
The pace of life that a Buddhist monk desires is different from the pace that a management consultant craves, and some parts of the world are better for one than they are the other. Either way, however, it’s the free time they have, the uncommitted time and what they do with it, that determines whether or not they are becoming more of who they are as they live. Because it is this time that lets them create their own patterns of action without the input of anybody else. And it’s the tempo of these patterns that shapes the decisions they make, the people they associate with, the work they produce.
Many people think of productivity as a matter of work. But broken down, the question of productivity — or more clearly stated, the dance with time — is an existential question. And it’s much richer and denser than how much can be squeezed into an hour here, an hour there. The real question of productivity is how much should be squeezed into an hour relative to who you are at any given point in your life and whether or not that supports the general rhythm that compliments the core of your being — whether or not that makes you more of who you are in relation to your core self and to other people.
When I synchronize, I am a part. When I asynchronize, I am a whole. The patterns that add consistency to my day to day actions generate and feed my inner being — they are a dance of contradictions that become a whole that pulsates to its own rhythm. And that whole, then, is what I share, what I give as a part, when I coordinate my experience of time with that of another.
When looked at clearly enough, an individual life is the relationship a physical body has with change. When this relationship is strong and healthy, the rhythm that is experienced by the body is existentially honest and meaningful, no matter its pattern. When this relationship is suffocating under the weight of the world, the rhythm that is experienced is out of tune and feels more like a race than it does a pattern of individuality.
Asynchronicity is the invisible force that makes us who we are — and who we are is what we do, moment to moment, to the beat of time.