Friday, December 3, 2010

The Randomness of Life

I was interested in an article by Gina Kolata who writes on health and fitness topics for the NY Times. She told how she fell on a bike ride recently and broke her collarbone. It so unnerved her that she thought she might never ride again. She had had other injuries from exercise before, for instance, a stress fracture from running but she never considered stopping her running. She wondered why. After talking to some other doctors and sports psychologists, she realized we tend to fear what we cannot control. A running injury is explainable. You run too much and you get a stress fracture. You take time off running and you heal. On her bike she was drafting off another cyclist and he swerved and she hit his rear tire and went down. She could not control the other cyclists movement nor what happened when she hit the tire. She was out of control and hurt. I have had that happen to me. When you hit a cyclists rear tire, you are the one who falls. It happens so fast there is no way to prevent it other than not riding so close but then you are not drafting. I was riding one Good Friday afternoon. It was an unusually warm Spring day and I was on my usual route for an hour long bike ride. I was on a main road and a car ran a stop sign at one of the intersections I passed. It happened so fast I could do nothing but choose what part of the car I was going to hit. I was not seriously hurt although I could have been. My bike was bent and my helmet was broke but I preached on Easter. That was many years ago but I am a more cautious rider today because of it. I have thought about that accident many times. If I had left my house a moment or two later or if I had been averaging a mile an hour slower pace or the person who hit me had chosen a different route home. If, If, If,... It's pretty common to second guess yourself after an accident.

Gerald Sittser was involved in a much more serious accident in 1991. Returning from a conference with his mother, wife and three children in their mini-van, they were hit head on by a drunk driver who crossed over into his lane going 85 mph. Gerry's mother, wife and their youngest child were killed in the crash. He wrote about the accident and how it affected his life in a book called A Grace Disguised. In one of the chapters, The Terror of Randomness, Sittser talks about how he fantasized for hour upon hour about all the little things he might have changed that day to avoid that accident. Any minor change to their schedule that day would have prevented the accident. He wrote that we expect life to be orderly because it usually is. There are certain natural laws life depends on. But, then accidents happen. A tornado interrupts the normal pattern of life. A man who watches his health all his life wakes up to find a lump on his neck. A woman who has enjoyed a normal life with a fulfilling career, and family decides to go for a run in a park on vacation and is assaulted by a stranger. Why, do accidents happen. Accident means something unplanned, unwanted happened for no reason. Accidents are random. Accidents, by definition, are out of our control. Sittser says Randomness mandates that we simply live as best we can, but in the end we must realize that what happens is often arbitrary. At such times the universe seems to make as much sense as a little girl who thinks her fleeting grudge against her brother is the reason he got measles.

Suffering, he says, may be at its fiercest when it is random, for we are then stripped of even the cold comfort that comes when events, however cruel, occur for a reason.

One day as Sittser was reliving that day and trying to think of how it might have been different if he changed one thing or another, his brother in law challenged him to reconsider whether he would really want the kind of power he was talking about. He told Sittser that life in this world is an accident waiting to happen and there is not much we can do about it. Common sense tells us to wear seat belts, and quit smoking, and exercise and good habits will minimize accidents but not eliminate them completely. Do you really, Sittser was asked by his brother in law, want to know the future so you could protect yourself from the accidents that inevitably and randomly occur in everyone's life. And he went on, if you could know the future and could alter your life in the present to avoid the accidents that were coming, would you want to know what accidents would befall you in your new altered life. What you want, he told Sittser, is to be God which is impossible. So, given that that option is closed the only other option would be to lock yourself in your house and put yourself in an antiseptic bubble for the rest of your life. But, who really wants to do that. Better, the brother in law said, to brace yourself for accidents and endure them the best you can. Better to give up your quest for control and live in hope.

Sittser went on to say that people who learn to live in hope seem to weather loss better than those who don't. Most of us don't live in absolute terror considering all the terrible accidents that may happen to us. We manage to live reasonably well and when it comes time to face the worst we can accept it as part of the bargain of living in a fallen world. We take our chances, all things considered, life is still worth living.

Sittser says he has been helped by two Biblical stories, Job's and Joseph's. Job learned that behind the apparent randomness of life is the existence of God whose greatness transcended Job but did not nullify the importance of his choices. Job found meaning in the ineffable presence of God which he could not fully comprehend but could experience in the depths of his being. Joseph's story helps us to see that our own tragedies can be a very bad chapter in a very good book. The terror of randomness is enveloped by the mysterious purposes of God. In the end, life turns out to be good, although the journey to get there may be circuitous and difficult.

Truth is we cannot see the bigger picture. But we choose to believe there is one and our lives and losses fit into the Great Story that has God for its author. That is our faith that life is not random, after all.