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chance karma etc

Chance, Karma and the roll of the dice

By George A. Ricker

I once worked for a man whose favorite question—one he asked his employees at every opportunity—was, “Is everything under control?”

My response—like those of my co-workers—was invariably a dutiful “Yes.”

I lied. Understand, I was much younger then and, at the time, was not aware I was lying. The lie wasn’t as much to him as it was to myself. Back then, I really believed everything was under control.

Now I know better.

It is one of our most persistent human delusions—the notion that we have control over the events around us, and that somehow we can manipulate reality so that all the chance occurrences that screw up everyone else's lives won't affect our own.

It’s also pure baloney.

No one—I repeat, no one—is immune from the random element in existence. The dice roll, and we are forced to live with the results. Some play the game better than others, but all are required to sit at the table until it’s time to cash in those chips and try, with your last fleeting glimpse back at the other players, to figure out what it all meant.

If you doubt the importance of chance in the lives of individuals, consider the shooting incident on the campus of Virginia Tech on April 19, 2007. Thirty-three students and faculty members were killed because a man went berserk. The thirty-third casualty was the shooter, who turned the gun on himself at the end of his rampage. Still more people were injured during the tragedy. And we can be sure that not only the lives of those in the line of fire were changed, but also the lives of those who cared about them, friends, family members—fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and children.

Does your vision of the way the world works include room for such events?

If it doesn’t, it ought to. Random events make up a much more important part of our lives on an individual basis than most of us care to admit. Indeed, for many people, it’s nearly impossible to come to terms with that proposition. We have this belief in order, this persistent illusion that it all makes some sort of sense—that there really is a pattern in these things, but we are simply incapable of discerning it.

Now, before we go too far down this road, let me be clear about a few things. I’m not suggesting that there is no such thing as order, nor am I suggesting that the cosmos does not operate in accordance with certain fundamental principles—the “laws” of nature, if you will. I also am not suggesting that we have no influence over the events in our lives.

What I am suggesting is that anyone who attempts to develop an approach to life that does not take account of the random element is spitting into the wind. It won’t work.

Consider a small example.

I have a friend—I won’t mention his name—who was a very talented baseball player in high school. Not just college teams but pro scouts were interested. A few weeks before he was scheduled to try out for one of the major league teams, he was involved in an accident while on a church outing.

The upshot of the incident was that he injured his leg permanently. End of prospects for a baseball career. Now, he wasn’t driving. The event was well chaperoned. There were no teenage high jinx going on. So you couldn’t honestly say “well, he sort of asked for it.”

No … it was an accident. One for which he bore no responsibility, but one that changed his life profoundly nonetheless. The change may have been bad or good. It’s hard to say. The accident may have saved him from a life of frustration, playing in the minor leagues while those around him went on to fame or fortune. On the other hand, it may have cost him the chance to achieve success at a game he loved. No matter. The important thing is, through no fault of his own, he was denied the opportunity.

The truth of the matter is that people don't always get what they deserve in life—whether good or bad. An awful lot of what we like to take credit for is plain dumb luck, and many of the things for which we are constantly taking the blame are totally outside our control.

It’s important to know how do deal with randomness. You can’t let it paralyze you. If you spend all your time waiting for the proverbial “other shoe” to drop, you’ll lose out on an awful lot of living. If you are constantly looking up, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever may be falling from the sky in your direction, you’ll miss what’s going on around you.

Of course, there is such a thing as accountability, and we do have to accept responsibility for that which is within our control. A large part of the wisdom that separates adults from children is the ability to differentiate between the two.

Most of what we perceive as pattern on the grand scale just doesn’t apply when we get down to the lives of individuals. The patterns are statistical averages. And anyone who knows anything about averages, knows they leave an awful lot of room for individual aberrations.

In fact, even the grand patterns are largely our own invention. Human history, like the lives of the individuals who live it, is made up of a series of mistakes, accidents, errors in judgment and luck, both good and bad. The pattern is imposed later, after the events described have already happened. And, of course, the pattern is written by the winners—however you define winning. Their “inevitable” rise to the top seldom acknowledges the role of chance.

But it’s on the individual level that the role of chance can be most clearly seen.

Some fairly elaborate schemes have been developed over the years to account for the random element in human existence. It’s suggested, for example, that current misfortune is retribution for bad things done by individuals in previous lives. So if things aren’t working out, just blame your karma or kismet or … whatever. I guess if such an approach works and makes an individual able to function, then it serves its purpose. Personally, I’ve always thought that, whether you call it karma, kismet or fate, what’s really at issue is luck.

Stuff happens, after all. Sometimes it’s good stuff, and sometimes it’s bad stuff. Sometimes it happens to you, and sometimes it happens to other people. Sometimes you can act in ways that minimize the stuff that happens, but there are other times when nothing you can do makes the slightest bit of difference.

And that’s not all bad. After all, the random element in existence places opportunities in our paths as well as obstacles. It keeps life exciting—sometimes too much so, and that can be a good thing as long as it’s not totally destructive like the events in Virginia to which I referred earlier.

The truth is we are neither the captains of our fates nor hapless pawns in the grip of chaotic indifference. The truth lies somewhere between those two extremes and probably varies for every individual to some extent. All of us, however, are affected, to some degree or another, by the random element of existence.

We deny its importance at our own peril, which was something my old boss never understood. He grew up, as I did, thinking everything was under control or, at least, could be if you worked hard enough at it.

I wonder if he ever learned the truth?

If he hasn’t, I think I’d send him to talk to the survivors of the shooting at Virginia Tech or someone who just won the lottery.

They could probably straighten him out.

© 2007 by George A. Ricker

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