By Nicolle

I’d already worn through six tissues by the time the music started to play. As the photos and home videos slid across the screen, tears ran uncontrollably down my face again. I futilely tried to mop them up with yet another tissue, trying not to focus on the presentation at the front of the sanctuary. Instead, I glanced over at my roommate who was sitting with what was left of her family, all clad in black and staring stoically at the front screen. How could this happen? I thought. How could someone so kind, so highly respected and so generous die? He did not deserve this. His wife and his family don’t deserve this. Why did this happen?

When my roommate and best friend’s dad died from a long-term battle with cancer, I knew it was inevitable that I’d struggle with why such a thing had happened. He was great dad, a caring husband, a giving friend. He consistently poured into people’s lives, whether it was with his time, with financial support or with his other resources. He hadn’t done anything wrong – so why did he and his family have to suffer?

I’ve since discovered that maybe my musings were entirely misdirected. Maybe, though it seems illogical, I shouldn’t be asking why? Maybe what I should instead be considering is whether or not I can ever know why.

Scientists have been studying something called the butterfly effect for decades. The butterfly effect, put simply, is the theory that, in the right conditions, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Canada can cause a hurricane in Thailand. This theory, combined with what scientists call the chaos theory, leaves us with a lot less knowledge than we think.

So what do these theories have to do with bad things happening to good people? Let’s consider this scenario:

You’re driving your car down the your street and you come to a four-way stop. You carefully come to a complete stop, look both ways, see no cars at the intersections to your left or right, so you start pulling out into the intersection. As you’re accelerating through the middle of the road, you feel a sudden jerk, hear the screech and clash of metal on metal and your car begins to fishtail. Another car has just hit the back end of your car, causing an accident that will test the limits of your insurance company.

Why did this happen? You looked both ways before proceeding into the intersection. You didn’t see any cars that were near enough to the four-way stop to indicate that they should have had the right of way. What did you do wrong?

You did nothing wrong. You controlled only what you were able to control at that moment – yourself and your car. To try to fully understand the cause of this accident, let’s look at the few minutes before your disastrous four-way stop incident.

You woke up early today and had a few extra minutes before you had to leave for the day, so you took your time on breakfast and jumped into your car early. You left your house 10 minutes before you normally do, but realized halfway down the block that you had forgotten your bag. You turned around, wasting five of your extra minutes on your forgetfulness. Then, as you started pulling out of the driveway in your car, you saw your neighbor’s cat crossing the street. You waited for her to trot across before you made your way down the block. You saw a friend driving by so you slowed down to wave, and then you had to stop to let a couple of pedestrians pass. You had finally made it to the four-way stop, checked for other cars and started to drive through when you were hit.

To know why you were in the intersection at the exact second that you were, you’d have to know all of those things, plus you’d have to know what caused all of those individual incidences. Why did you wake up early? Is there a reason you took extra time for breakfast? What made you forget your bag? Why was the neighbor’s cat crossing the street when you were pulling out of the driveway? Why was your friend driving down your street at the same moment you were heading off for the day? Why were those pedestrians crossing the street when they were? Did the person who hit you see the stop sign? Was the road slippery? Did she leave on time or was she rushing?

If this many questions arise from the simple act of leaving your house for the day, how many more questions would arise from a much more complicated incident like my friend’s dad dying from cancer? I’d have to understand how and when he got cancer and what caused it, his family medical history, what his treatments were, when he had them, when they worked and when they didn’t work… the list could literally go on forever. And if I can’t even fully understand the reason your car was hit in that intersection, it’s nearly impossible to understand why my friend’s dad died.

Put simply, the world is interdependent. What happened that morning to cause you to leave your house at the time you did was affected by things you did the night before. Things you can control, like what time you went to bed, affect it. But variables you can’t control contribute as well, such as your neighbor’s cat walking across the street. The accident was also caused by things other people did, like the woman who hit your car, over which you have no control.

To look at it on a much wider scale, fully understanding why your car got hit that morning requires you to know and understand the exhaustive history of the world. You’d have to know why the roads near your house were built the way they were, to facilitate the need for a four-way stop. You’d need to know when the woman who hit your car was born, what made her old enough to drive at that instant. The more history you knew, the closer you’d be to ascertaining the reason for your car accident.

But, it’s impossible to know the exhaustive history of the world. And, if it’s impossible to know all of history, it also seems impossible for us to understand the true reason why such a car accident happened. The conditions in which the accident happened are directly intertwined with an infinite number of other conditions that influenced other incidents in the past, making it decidedly impossible to understand why.

While this thought may be less comforting than feeling like I understand why my friend’s dad couldn’t beat his cancer, I’d rather have this answer than no answer. I’d rather feel like I have something to chew on than feel like the best answer to my “Why?” is that it was “his time to go.”

As I stood up from the pew, my crumbled tissues clutched in my hand, I looked again at my friend and her family. Though I didn’t know why her dad had lost his battle with cancer, I started to feel more comfortable with the ambiguity. Bad things happen, I thought. The bad things don’t differentiate between “good” and “bad” people. Too many things are factors in understanding why he died. The best thing I can do now is to rest in the fact that my job isn’t to figure out why it happened. My job is to be there for my roommate. And that’s all I need to know.

First published January 5, 2009, http://www.alivemagazine.org.

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