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Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Fog of Causes

Into the fog we go again.
While David was in surgery on Thursday morning, a good friend of ours kept me company in the waiting room. This friend is a cardiac nurse and gave me some advice about back problems I’ve been having lately: apply ice, take anti-inflammatory medication, wear a good brace to support the back, and, yes, think about investing in a good mattress. I told him I’d tried the ice a couple evenings, to no effect whatsoever, and he replied that when he tells someone to take aspirin, get bed rest, and drink a lot of fluids, the person is quite likely to report a few days later that he followed the advice about fluids but ignored the rest. “You can’t just do one thing,” he said. “You have to do it all. It all works together.”

When we human beings think about cause and effect, it’s all too easy for us to envision oversimplified schematics, such as a pool cue hitting a cue ball that hits another ball that goes into a pocket. Even the physical world of pure material causes is seldom that simple! And as for that pool cue—wasn’t someone guiding it?  And so, looking beyond the pool table at the larger realm of human behavior, a complex and confusing welter of dreams, fears, resentments, desires, hopes, and intentions, is it any wonder we want to simplify the picture? But simplification distorts and falsifies reality.

The cue ball had no choice. It offered nothing other than insufficient material resistance to the cue that struck it and no resentment whatsoever against the ball it struck. A purely causal explanation tells the story. Human beings are different. We are intentional beings, partly but not fully conscious of our own desires and aims, and there it is. If we had no intentions, material causes would explain us, and there would be no “behavior” at all. If we were fully conscious, completely aware of all our intentions and emotions, we would behave very differently from the way we do. But that’s not who or where we are. We move through a fog that obscures our own motives as well as those of others, and often, searching for simple explanations, we tell stories that serve only to generate more fog.

Much is hidden, and we see little.
Whenever there is a tragedy such as the recent school shooting in Connecticut, the same sadly predictable, two-sided debate questions are hurried onstage. Is our violent film industry to blame? (Sides form up in yes or no lines.) Is America’s love of guns the culprit? (Debaters say yes or no.) Easy access to deadly weapons? Or maybe it’s violent video games or untreated mental illness or drug addiction or divorce or one-parent families or parental neglect or parental abuse or bullying from others or social isolation or post-traumatic stress?

How can we think only one identifiable “thing” is to blame? We all know individuals, maybe even ourselves, who have suffered from or participated in any of the possible “causes” listed above but have not gone on a rampage of violence. So we say, no, bullying doesn’t explain it, because I was bullied as a child, too. Or we say, no, guns cannot be at fault, because everyone in my family hunts, and none of us would ever kill another human being. Or, no, we can't blame violent movies, because I’ve seen plenty of them, or no, it can’t be divorce, because my parents were divorced—and on and on and on. Everyone is ready to point to a cause, and there’s always someone else ready to argue that what is identified as the cause is insufficient.

Human status: "It's complicated."
I would feel more hopeful about a solution if there were more indications of awareness that the reasons and explanations for these horrible tragedies come from many directions, from time to time converging (to schematize) on a vulnerable point, a desperate individual. Can we not imagine that while every contributing cause is insufficient it itself, together they gain strength? And so, every contributing cause may be significant, even though insufficient in itself?

It isn’t enough to try only to stop bullying in schools or only to put tougher restrictions on purchase and ownership of weapons or only to intervene in troubled families or to take any single line of remediation, ignoring other sources of harm. On the other side of the coin, it is naive and unhelpful for anyone to say, “No, it isn’t my bullying or cruel teasing or gun manufacture or violent film production or violent video game creation or sales of weapons or sales of violent films or games or music or my not bothering to know my neighbor or my avoiding eye contact with people I meet or my rush-to-judgment of others’ motives and overly confident faith in the purity of my own-------.” On and on and on.

As long as I live, I will probably be enough a child of the Sixties to believe that “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” We children of the Sixties, like the children of every other decade, surely made our own contributions to this problem. The question is, can we stop pointing fingers and come together to explore possible solutions? Can we find our way into the light together?

Seeking clarity....

I have been thinking and thinking about how to say this, and here is what I think I want to say: If the last straw had been the first, it alone would not have broken the camel’s back, but each and every straw the camel was asked to carry would have contributed its weight to the final result. 




3 comments:

dmarks said...

It is really foggy here now. You will like tomorrow's post by me. Today's? Probably not. But tomorrow's most certainly.

Dawn said...

I've been listing to some of the pontification going on 24/7 on the TV. Not all of it...I can't listen to all of it or I'll be crazy. The problem is very complicated, and will be difficult, if not impossible to solve. But just because it's difficult, complicated and maybe even divisive does not mean we should push it once again under the rug. We have to try. Even a small change that moves us as a society toward safety and community and resolution is worth the effort. Even if the problem will not, perhaps can not, be solved in my lifetime.

P. J. Grath said...

Your comment about the difficulty of the problem, Dawn, makes me think of something someone said (not in a comment on the blog post) about the difficulty of comparing relative costs of print vs. electronic books. Yes, difficult problems and questions face us as human beings, but that is no excuse for not trying to solve and answer them. I think you and I agree on that.