Sunday, January 09, 2005

Dealing with the Random

It's occurred to me over the past week that two events currently affecting my life (one distantly and one immediately) both involve the element of chance or randomness. Those events would be the tsunami and my brother's accident. Certainly, you can ascribe cause and effect to these events: an earthquake occurs, a tsunami rises and the ensuing tragedy proves almost unimaginable. My brother falls and falling face-first into concrete, he's hurt very badly. That's cause and effect. The randomness comes into play when you try to talk about purpose. I believe it's often psychologically healthier and certainly more accurate to think of some things as occurring simply by chance rather that ascribing purpose to them--or (perhaps worse) struggling to divine purpose from them.

If you look at what's happened on the other side of the earth and try to find a purpose, rather than simply chalking the horror up to randomness, you quickly find yourself taken down paths best not taken. Now, I hope and I'm fairly sure that few people believe those 155,000+ people were being punished for their lifestyles or for mistreating the earth or some other nonsense like that, but I'm sure many people may still be prompted to suggest that God has some sort of divine plan that's mysterious and unknowable to us that necessitated these horrific events. And there's your problem. Because a god of that order could only be a wicked, mean-spirited god certainly not deserving of our worship (if any god or any thing is deserving of our worship, which I personally and strongly believe is not the case). And, of course, some folks (a very small minority, I'm sure) may even believe that since something is God's will, then they don't need to interfere with the proceedings by doing anything like, say, helping. (We've all heard the stories about some religious people who refuse to help their dying loved ones, believing, tragically, that their ailment is God's will and if he will, he'll save them.)

So, the tsunami's a really universal example. Let's apply to this at the individual level and look at why it's psychologically unhealthy. I'd suggest that individuals currently suffering at the hands of this catastrophe could benefit from the following way of looking at things, too. If something bad happens to *you,* certainly, there may be something to learn from it. We can learn for example how to create better tsunami detection devices, how to devise better warning systems, etc. If you have a car accident, you can certainly think about whether it was due to your driving skills or the condition of your vehicle. However, in the midst of such misfortune, it doesn't behoove you to think that god or the universe was out to get you. Or to teach you a lesson even. That can only prove psychologically crippling. And I simply don't believe it a realistic way of looking at the world, the universe, and, if you will, God.

If must be especially tempting for some who have experienced one sort of misfortune after the other to think that the universe is out to get them. That they're just never supposed to get a leg up. But that's superstitious thinking. More importantly, it's self-defeating thinking. If you get into a cycle of believing you don't deserve to do better, that God won't allow you to do better, you're planting yourself in the middle of a vicious cycle. You're creating the worst sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. One that affects that which should be most dear to you--your entire life.

Now, I'm no disciple of Nietzsche, but the man did do some serious thinking. And his perhaps most famous quote ties directly into this: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." Now, that sounds rather brutal at first, and a little too stoic for me these days (I'm turning into an old softy, you see). But there's some truth to it. Only I'd make a slight but ever so important emendation: "That which does not kill us can make us stronger." Unfortunately, the onus is on us as individuals to determine not to be flattened by the random, the horrors that nature throws our way, the undeserved setbacks, and to forge on, determined to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

Yeah, that does sound a little stoic doesn't it? A little Sisyphean. But, thankfully, not every day's like that.

Another way people attempt to deal with the random, to show purpose is by pointing out those who miraculously survived some sort of tragedy. No, that's simply randomness working it's "magic," I'm afraid (as any statistician worth his salt could confirm), and to say that God spared a few individuals by some sort of miracle is a grotesque sort of superstition to be sure, since in the case of the tsunami it leaves 155,000+ dead because God didn't see fit to perform the same miracle for them. And their families. Similarly, I think about how randomness affected my brother. If he'd fallen backwards or if he'd fallen inside instead of outside on the concrete, he may not even have had to be hospitalized. It was simply the random way he fell that caused him all that pain and damage. It wasn't God's will. And though I know their intentions are good, I'm saddened that some would say (and have said) it was God's will. What a cruel god to have to believe in.

How much better not to take such events personally. But to learn from them anyway.

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