Signs from the universe. Everyone has heard about them.
Probably the most prominent promoter of this idea is Paulo Coelho, the internet’s favorite writer. Coelho has written about signs, or omens, as follows:
‘Everything in life is an omen,’ said the Englishman, now closing the journal he was reading. ‘There is a universal language, understood by everybody, but already forgotten.’
Here are the basic assumptions of the theory of signs from the universe:
- Each person has only one right path to follow.
- The universe watches over the life of every person.
- Tenaciously, in spite of a lack of obedience, it sends people signs to follow their paths.
- People who do so will be rewarded with a wonderful life.
I don’t know about you, dear readers, but to me the whole story resembles a Disney movie. Is it just magical thinking, or is there a grain of truth? I’ll try to answer that in the following paragraphs.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT SIGNS
Signs that we usually hear about come either from aliens or God. According to some, the two options are the same thing. Here is a typical example of such a situation:
- You are walking down the street, wondering whether or not to go to India, and suddenly you meet a Hindu person.
- You want to change jobs, and then you meet a friend who tells you that a vacancy just opened up at his company.
- You just had a relationship breakup, then you find yourself walking past a place that you used to visit with your first girlfriend, and you suddenly meet her there.
Some people will say that this is a sign from fate/heaven/the universe, because coincidences like these simply don’t happen. Others will say quite the opposite—that each of these situations is a simple coincidence, many of which we have all experienced throughout our lives. However, the final outcome of this dispute is irrelevant, because we have to take into consideration one more important factor: the human factor.
SIGNS AREN’T ALWAYS SO OBVIOUS
The nineteenth-century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, wishing to give a name to the feeling of anxiety associated with decision-making, resorted to a term known today as “the anguish of Abraham.”
Jean-Paul Sartre explained it as follows:
You know the story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son; and obedience was obligatory, if it really was an angel who had appeared and said, ‘Thou, Abraham, shalt sacrifice thy son.’ But anyone in such a case would wonder, first, whether it was indeed an angel and secondly, whether I am really Abraham. Where are the proofs?
The anguish consists in the fact that you are never quite sure whether the sign you get is what you take it to mean. Good old Abraham could have taken his doubts even further: “Is this a joke? Is God testing me, to see if I’ll break the commandment? What if this is the devil’s work? What if I’m hallucinating?” And so on.
The same concept holds for all kinds of “signs from the universe.”
You start a business and are out of luck right from the very beginning. First, your supplier fails to deliver, then your computer breaks down, and then you get sick; and here comes the question: “Is this a sign that you should let the business go? Or is this the universe testing me urging me to keep on trying?” The interpretation is left entirely up to you.
And your interpretation is exposed to numerous potential errors, such as priming. For example, if you’ve recently been thinking about leaving a place, you are likely to notice more stimuli connected with that decision – written materials, people, objects. Most of us have experienced priming. Here are more examples:
You buy a Ford Fiesta and you suddenly notice a lot Ford Fiestas being driven around town. You hear that a couple you know are expecting a baby, and suddenly you start noticing baby carriages and pregnant women all around. You’re considering changing jobs and then you catch a glimpse of several job ads in newspapers, or hear about job openings in conversations with friends. The number of cars, pregnant women, or job offers hasn’t changed. It is the way your brain filters information that has.
So if you’re considering going to India and then you meet a Hindu person, you might have been primed to notice him or her among all the other people by simply thinking about the trip. If you’re looking for a job, you are more likely to bring it up with your friends, so the chances of someone telling you about an attractive job vacancy are higher than in a situation when this topic hasn’t been raised. You meet your ex-girlfriend near your favorite restaurant, you feel nostalgic about your past and think this is a sign that you should be together again. But in fact it might be just a sign that you have spent many good moments together and you met a trigger that recalled them.
There’s no objective answer here, and this is precisely why those “signs” are so useless. Even if we actually receive a sign, there is still a vast field of interpretations to determine what the sign might mean. You can interpret a sign one way or another, but you will have to deal with the consequences of your interpretation. Don’t bother blaming the world, universe, or ignorance. You won’t even know where to start.
Screaming at the sky won’t help (unless you’re Jim Carrey acting in a fantasy movie). Any ambiguity you come across you have to explain it yourself. And you — unlike the infallible universe — you have the right to be wrong.
WHY WOULD WE EVEN NEED SIGNS?
Well, if believing in signs doesn’t give us clear answers, does it make our lives easier in any other way?
It certainly does make life easier. According to this theory, following signs from the universe is similar to the expiring belief that going to college guarantees a good job—it is more pleasant to believe that there is one right way to ensuring a long and happy life.
Besides, it is more pleasant to live with the thought that the universe was designed to take care of us. Wherever you go, you don’t feel that you’re alone, because all this time the good “Uncle Universe” is watching over you, like a family watches over its beloved child. This sounds like a very nice vision, although it seems rather self-centered.
And then there is the feeling of consistency, which usually accompanies the act of following signs. If you believe that the path that you are following is the only right one, you don’t have to make any decisions. You have no doubts. You don’t wonder “What if?” And life without doubts is certainly pleasant.
If it’s so pleasant, is there any sense in giving up on our belief in signs? In my opinion, there is.
WHY DO I ADVISE AGAINST BELIEVING IN SIGNS?
We’ve already said that signs allow you to feel safe; like an exciting rollercoaster, where you scream with thrill and terror but you’re always safely on the track, where nothing bad can happen to you.
I have found many times that the common concerns and fears about the world are greatly exaggerated. I have hitch-hiked over 100 times and nothing bad has happened to me. I have met drug addicts, drug dealers, people who just left prison, and held perfectly normal conversations with them. A few years ago, I trustingly followed two Hindu people I met on the street to their boss’s house, where I was surrounded by people trying to convince me to smuggle diamonds. Despite my experiences, I’m still alive.
At the same time, I am not naive. This is because instead of looking for signs I make my own decisions. I know I have taken some risks and chances. But I always evaluate my situation, examine the person I am talking to, and assess how able I am to defend myself.
If I had blindly followed signs, I might have decided to take even more risks, which might have not ended well. You can definitely reject any belief in signs and still act spontaneously and do exciting things. It has to do with taking responsibility for your decisions. You will get used to it eventually.
Besides, we have said that believing in signs absolves you from thinking. You wait for your sign (actually, your interpretation of the sign) and simply follow it. The problem with that is giving up the decision-making process to external forces. It is the ability to take autonomous decisions that makes us independent people.
Of course, you could just treat signs as mere suggestions or ideas to consider. You could even make an informed decision to choose to believe in signs, to trust them and allow them to lead you. In this way, you accept all possible consequences of such actions.
Sometimes it seems that people who believe in signs just want the signs to confirm that they have chosen the right path (or that they have not chosen wrong), as if the appearance of signs was the guarantee they needed to confirm that they can, in fact, achieve what they really want. On the other hand, signs contradicting their current path are an indication that their concerns and doubts were reasonable, and that they can now give up pursuing a given goal.
For example, a man is wondering whether or not to quit his job and start his own business. Naturally, he is anxious about this decision because it is fraught with considerable risk. Meanwhile, he hears two acquaintances who are entrepreneurs saying that they have been forced to shut down their company because they weren’t faring well. He decides that this is a sign for him to give up on his own business plans and feels relieved. He does this instead of simply identifying and assessing the risk, finding methods of limiting it, and only later, with a complete plan, deciding whether or not to pursue his goal.
Once you reject believing in signs, you will need to get used to the uncertainty of your decisions and your goals. But it is still possible to live a good life that way. Instead of looking for signs, choose effective planning and stay focused on your own needs.
It turns out that the question in the title of this article is wrong question. I haven’t told you if signs from the universe exist. That’s because I’m unable to definitively verify it, although it is very unlikely that they do exist, in my opinion. But even if the signs exist they are still completely useless to me, since we all interpret signs our own way (quite randomly, actually), and we make decisions on our own.
We are independent people – people who don’t have to walk around waiting for a sign but can take matters in their own hands; people who can take responsibility for their own decisions, which allows them to learn from their mistakes and successes, instead of holding the whole world responsible.
Well then, what’s the conclusion? Don’t give up looking for signs. But instead of looking for signs on the outside, look inside — into your own feelings, your wishes, your needs. Then, think about how you can make them come true.
It must be a sign that I found this article!
I kid. Very good breakdown of the topic. Looking for ‘signs’ only reflects a lack of faith in oneself and an unwillingness to take personal responsibility. It externalizes willpower: you think about investing, then a great-looking offer comes along, turns out to be a scam – well, investing must not be for you; never mind the learning curve and ensuring you do your due diligence. Maybe this is part of why advertising works: you’re thirsty, you see an ad for Pepsi, someone up above must mean for you to go buy some! Later you can look for similar signs on why the universe wants you to deal with diabetes.
It seems to me that atheists would have a rational view on this because they accept that this world we see is all there is, and we’re on our own. Belief in signs has aspects of romanticism and entitlement, the idea that the universe colludes just for you to be happy and essentially revolves around you. It’s just frequency illusion. Take a decision that needs to be made, add a little self-awareness to the mix, and the dish is much more satisfying than sprinkling it with random things you saw walking down the street.
Thanks for bringing a sane voice to the topic.