One morning, while trying to learn to read Russian, I was puzzling my way through a silly Russian kids’ science fiction story and ran across an expression that seemed rather odd. I was sure I recognized the word “green”—but when I looked up the unfamiliar other word, it was “sloth.” “Green sloth?” This turned out to be the correct translation, since, on the next page, there was a picture of the boy astronaut encountering a green sloth on an alien planet. Okay.
Later that same day, I was reading a completely unrelated book about Teddy Roosevelt’s travels in the Amazon, and the words “green sloth” jumped out at me again. Yes, Teddy had seen green sloths on his journey—and it was explained that they are green because of an algae that thrives in their fur.
And then (no, really)—turning on the television that evening, I caught a glimpse of a documentary… about sloths. They were, indeed, a bit green. The narrator talked about the algae on the fur, while I called Holly at work, wild with excitement, to tell her that I’d actually seen three green sloths in a single day!
This exceptional set of coincidences is really only a bit beyond what seems to be happening on a regular basis all the time, though we only occasionally notice. For obvious reasons, Holly and I now refer to such events as “green sloths.” Jung called them synchronicities.
A synchronicity is generally defined as a “meaningful coincidence.” Maybe you’re not sure why seeing three green sloths is meaningful? Well, I’m not entirely sure myself! But I think that when unlikely events coincide, they might best be understood as if they were dream images: the nature of the image (or the green sloth) may have metaphorical significance. And the more startling and unlikely it is, the more it gets our attention—which may imply that it contains something worth attending to!
When sloths kept presenting themselves to me, I thought I’d take a look at the nature of sloths, and how that nature might be relevant to my life. I’ve always admired the slowness of sloths—their unhurried eating, their easy sleeping, the lazy, benign expressions on their faces. No doubt, I’m projecting my own ideas about sloths rather than expressing an educated understanding of their lifestyle. But the fact that I was all at once encountering sloths, and particularly green sloths, suggests to me that the qualities I imagined them possessing were important to me at that time. The fact that they were green might have been related to my associations with green things that could be 1) growing; 2) new or raw; and perhaps 3) flexible rather than brittle. So, maybe I needed to incorporate a patient, slow-growing, flexibility into my latest undertakings.
Some synchronicities seem to be meaningful in more obvious ways. For example, many times in my work with end-of-life care, powerful “coincidences” have occurred just as a person is dying. These events usually have some intimate connection to the person involved—such as when, at the moment of death, a hummingbird hovers at the window of a woman who loved hummingbirds… But they can also have cultural or archetypal significance as well: in some traditions, hummingbirds are thought to be the strong souls of warriors, or of women who died in childbirth, coming to escort the dying to the other world.
But there are also plenty of ordinary “green sloths” whose meaning is obscure to say the least. A particular ancient Greek poet gets mentioned repeatedly everywhere you go… You keep finding single sneakers in the street, in the park, at the dentist’s office… Eight different cars of the same make, model and color, with a similar-looking driver and passenger, go by during the fifteen minutes that you’re waiting for a bus… Hm. What do you make of that? And then there was that weird dream about the green sloth writing Greek poetry, wearing a single sneaker, and riding in the passenger seat of the same car… It’s all part of the great synchronicity Mystery!