Monday, July 4, 2011

On Cause and Effect

I need to preface my story with a warning: the relationship between cause and effect is never quite as clear as it seams. Of course, some causes and effects are apparent. For instance, a heavy rain causes a flash flood. But then things get more complicated. For instance, suppose the rain occurs at night in a public campground in Missouri. The floods sweep away dozens of tents , killing campers as they sleep. The causes of the deaths are not so one-dimensional. Sure, the floods killed the campers, but what about the attendants at the campground who failed to warn the campers. My dad was, once upon a time, a lawyer, so these kinds of questions naturally occurred to him. And I guess in a way, they bug me too.

Then again, there is the cosmic question of causality. Does God bear any responsibility in this because he/she made the rains fall from heaven? Personally, I don't like to blame God for anything. I prefer to just say thanks and be on my way.

Finally, there is the weird notion out there that given enough facts we can determine the cause of everything. I call this the "butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon forest and a flood ensues" theory. Sure that is a mouthful, but what it boils down to is that everything affects everything in some way. You just need to follow the chain of events to see where the cause leads to. But I doubt that there is a supercomputer big enough to follow the effects of the butterfly in the Amazon. I prefer more direct causes and more direct effects.

In a way, I have to limit myself to one reality. That is that the only thing for sure about a cause and effect is that the former engenders the latter. Then again, the latter may have more than one cause. This useful fact comes into play when lawyers try to spread the blame around.

Now, on to my story.

My father has always taught me to be on my guard. And when I reached 17, got my driver's license, and began to roam the streets at night, his warnings increased. First, he would remind me that I was only 17. I hadn’t really had any hard knocks in life.He would then follow up this observation with a vague warning that you never know when life will grab you by the short hairs and give you the shock of your life. He always warned me that I drove too fast, but what parent doesn't say that to his child?

That “short hair” experience was to happen to me one summer night not long afterwards. School was out for the summer, it was shortly after midnight, and I was racing home to beat the midnight curfew, only, the race was already lost. The time was 15 minutes after midnight, and I knew my mom would be at the door. “Give me the keys,” she would say as I entered, “You’re late.” Protest that I might, that I was delayed because my two friends, who were spending the night at my house, and I had stopped for gas to make it home, the excuse would not matter. I have a friend who joined the army a month ago. He told me how he he left camp with a week’s pass to return home. Then at the last moment, a general alert was called, and he was suppose to return to base. He feigned ignorance of the alert and came home for a glorious week in Wichita. But when he got back to camp, he lost the two stripes he had earned during basic training to a drill sargeant who was not in to excuses.My mom is like my friend’s drill sargeant, demanding and unforgiving.

Anyway, that summer night, my two friends and I were in my car heading back home. We were within two blocks of home when that “hard knock ” my dad had warned me of was to reach out and slap me silly.

Ahead I saw a stop sign I had seen a thousand times before. Out of the pitch dark on my right came another car heading east. I tried to hit the brakes, but whether it was the suddenness of the unanticipated car, the lateness of the day, or my fear of mom, my foot slipped from the break to the accelerator, and I rushed headlong into the intersection. The other car did not have a stop sign. It continued apace and struck the passenger side of my car.Both cars did a 180 degree spin.

The effect of that crash was to turn my life around like the spin my car took. And worse, my carefree summer plans were totaled like the car I would never drive again.

Now I know that this story is taking more detours than my car did that fateful night. Still, as dad would say, a journey is not always a straight line. Sometimes, you stop. Sometimes you don't even make it.

What I am wondering here is what are the possible effects of such an event. After all, if this is a life learning process, I should at least contemplate how lucky I am to be alive. And I am alive as evidenced by the fact that I am writing this story. But what about all the "what ifs"? What if the other car was going faster, was bigger, my car was smaller, I had no seat belts, I had been drinking, my passengers were hurt? As you see, the effects can vary greatly depending on many variables that went into that night. What if my mom had called and told me not to worry about being late? And wonder of wonders, what if a butterfly had flown into my windshield earlier causing me to slow down and miss the accident entirely. Well, that would have been wonderful, for on such mundane events we owe our very existence. As you see, the possibilities are endless.

But in the real world effects are real. They follow from the acts we commit. And the consequences of our acts sometimes stay with us for a long time. Here is what happened to me.

The actual events are always surreal.Dreamlike in the sense that you are there but you have no control over the events that are happening around you.

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