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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
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
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 anysingle 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
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?
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.