The 2004 movie Crash begins with the sound of two cars colliding and a voice-over. Horns are blaring, tires are screeching, metal is crunching, and then with the distant image of out of focus lights flashing, the following voice over is heard:
“It’s the sense of touch. Any real city, you walk, you brush past people, people bump into you. In L. A. nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
It’s the voice of one of the drivers. His companion says:
“I think we got rear-ended. I think we spun around twice. And somewhere in there, one of us lost our frame of reference. And I’m gonna go look for it.”
The rest of the movie is a riveting tale of cause and effect bumping into each other as people find and lose their frames of reference, positive outcomes spring from near disaster and vice versa with a brilliant weaving of plotlines leaving the impression that all the players and their fates are ultimately related, mostly unpredictable and rarely fair.
In one of the interrelated plots, two young guys carjack an SUV and accidentally run down an Asian man who is just getting out of his van full of the Cambodian immigrants he is about to deliver as slaves. They dump the Asian man in front of a hospital where he survives and gives his wife the payment check for the slaves. Meanwhile the carjackers take the Asian man’s van unaware that it’s full of Cambodian slaves. They discover the Cambodians as they are in the process of selling the van. The eyes of the guy buying the van light up. He offers them $500 for each slave but they think better of it in a moment of conscience and set the Cambodians free. You’re left wondering who the heroes are, who the villains are and what the moral of the story could possibly be.
The reason I enjoy Crash so much is because its plot is like life. It blindsides your expectations, spins your emotions until you’re giddy and rear ends your assumptions. Sometimes, events that seem to be wholly evil, are used for good. Sometimes, the best intentions and altruistic actions lead to destruction. The beautifully frustrating thing about life is that we are always in the middle of a sequence of interrelated plotlines, bumping into each other. The truth is that we don’t know what the future holds, but we dare to believe that everything we think, do and say has an impact, whether we see and understand it or not.
Flooded with Tragedy
Is it just me or do others feel worn out from all the tragedy of the last week? In the week that we honored the memorial of the earthquake that killed over 300,000 people in Haiti and made a million people homeless, we suddenly had to make some sense of the Tucson shootings and horrendous floods in Australia and Brazil. When will it end, all this bumping into each other and innocent suffering? What is the meaning in it all? Maybe most importantly, is there anything we can do that would make a real difference? You want to make a difference, don’t you? You want to believe that your actions have an impact.
One of my favorite 20th century philosophers was Michel Foucault. He expresses well the post modern frustration with any absolute systems of knowledge or certainty. He said of his own writing that “I don’t write a book so that it will be the final word; I write a book so that other books are possible, not necessarily written by me.” He said of his own personal growth, “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.”
He wrote about the history of power, knowledge, sanity and punishment in order to show the constant evolution of contexts. He said something that relates to our desire to make sense of tragedy. He said, “People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”
As I relate these words to the idea of cause and effect, we could say that all actions have reactions, but the reactions aren’t necessarily predictable. Or maybe it’s more like a game of chess, where the very next move may be predictable but the moves beyond that become increasingly difficult to predict. While on vacation recently I played chess with my 12 year old nephew. It turns out he is very good, and I am very ordinary at chess. I feel pleased with myself if I make a move where I take into account the very next move in the game. In the meantime, he tells me that no matter what I do, he’s going to beat me in five moves. And he does just that. It’s a demoralizing experience being told that no matter what you do, you will lose. It’s a demoralizing experience to live with integrity and have no idea what benefit it will have 4, 5 or more situations out from where you are now.
The law of cause and effect either requires freakish ability to read the future, or else it requires a lot of patience and trust. In other words, causes may have their effects but the effects might be beyond anything we can know or control. Small causes can even have enormous effect, like the flapping of a butterfly wing that causes a hurricane on the other side of the world. But from our position, always in the middle of the drama, we can’t always plot the moves from butterfly flap to hurricane.
On the one hand this is empowering. Even actions that seem small or start out small may create waves of positive change in the world. On other hand, you may not see any connection or worthwhile outcome. It may even seem like your efforts are counterproductive. And yet there is something resilient in the human spirit that persists. Even though you have no certainty that your best efforts will make the slightest difference, you do them anyway. You do the only thing you can do, the only thing you have any control over, you stir your hand in the pond, see tiny ripples begin to disperse and let go of the outcome.
Cause And Effect in Spiritual Traditions
Most of the spiritual traditions teach some form of the law of cause and effect. Whether it’s a theistic tradition that teaches that the Creator God is the ultimate cause who keeps account of good and evil in the world, or non theistic traditions like Buddhism and Taoism that teach that the law of cause and effect is built into the very nature of life, and the universe itself keeps balance, most traditions encourage some sort of personal responsibility through the teaching of cause and effect.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus’ parables have a fascinating perspective on cause and effect. Luke Chapter 13 tells its own mini Crash story before one of these parables. It’s hard to piece together the details, but with the help of Josephus we can guess that the corrupt Roman official Pilate wanted to build an aqueduct into Jerusalem and he funded it with money he stole from Jews on pilgrimage. The Jews gathered in a crowd around Pilate and demanded their money back so Pilate sent soldiers into the crowd dressed in civvies to send a message to them. Pilate’s soldiers had no idea who the protestors were and indiscriminately killed many in the crowd. They died on the same altars to which they were making sacrifice. Hence the mingling of their blood with sacrificial blood. Later on while building his ill gotten aqueduct, part of the structure collapsed killing 18 people. Before coming to the parable, consider the parallel between these events and events of our time. There is a part of us that would like to see justice done with Pilate killed under the falling structure, but life isn’t like that.
Consider Pilate, and consider Jared Loughner as you listen to this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn,
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
In Jesus’ world they believed that everything happened for a specific reason, and that God would bring justice to every evil act. Jesus took a radically different approach. He said that all people are equally guilty and suffering bears no relationship to justice. He said that ALL should “repent”. Don’t think of repenting as beating your breasts with guilt. Think of repenting as paying attention to life with greater openness. Stay open to the unfolding of life because you are always in the middle of it, dependent on all that came before you and paving the way for all that comes after you. Your life and actions are that significant even when there are few specific effects and outcomes you can draw from your actions. The parables speak of a reversal of fortunes where the only logic is grace, and call for patience and forgiveness along the way. Without patience and forgiveness, the law of cause and effect can be a harsh and manipulative truth.
While spiritual traditions teach a form of cause and effect, many of them warn against concretizing, forming conclusions for all time. Remember the Taoist story about the farmer whose horse runs away. The neighbors say “That’s awful.” The famer says, “How do you know this is not a good thing?” Sure enough the horse returns the next day with another horse. The neighbors say, “You are lucky.” He says, “How do you know this is not a bad thing?” The next day his son rides the new horse, falls off and breaks his leg. The neighbors say, “You poor man.” He says, “How do you know this is not a good thing?” The army comes through town the next day, taking all able bodied boys with them, leaving the farmer’s boy because of his broken leg. The neighbors gather and say, “We’re so pleased for you.” The farmer says, “We’ll see!” The story could keep going, but you get the point.
We are in the middle, with causes and effect bumping into each other all the time. Or else out of the Sufi tradition, learn from this story about multiple causes.
“What is Fate?” Nasrudin, the wise fool used in Sufi stories, was asked by a Scholar.
“An endless succession of intertwined events, each influencing the other”, Nasrudin replied.
“That is hardly a satisfactory answer. I believe in cause and effect”, said the Scholar.
“Very well,” said Nasrudin, “look at that.” He pointed to a procession passing in the street.”
“That man is being taken to be hanged. Is that because someone gave him a silver piece and enabled him to buy the knife with which he committed the murder; or because someone saw him do it; or because nobody stopped him?”
Do Good Anyway
Relate this last story to the Tucson shootings. There is value in looking for causes. It enables us to learn from the past and break destructive patterns. Just beware of concretizing. Various people have pointed to gun laws, the treatment of mental illness, and the political language of violence as possible causes of the shootings. Did Jared Loughner create mayhem, or did we fail to stop him by seeing all the signs? These are all valid inquiries but may not yield any absolute answers. Maybe causes are always complex and interrelated. While the causes are complex, the effect of the shooting is in our control. As President Obama said at the Memorial on Wednesday night, lack of civil discourse is not the cause of the shooting, but from here on we can make sure that civil discourse is an effect of the shooting.
The one cause that you can trace with some accuracy is your own thought patterns, conscious and subconscious. Where you can trace your tendency to blame and judge back to a critical thought pattern, you can begin to change your mindset and that matters. Begin with awareness. Notice the connection between self limiting and judgmental thoughts and all of this bumping into each other. With this new awareness, start changing the script beginning with healthy thought patterns.
From healthy thoughts, move to life affirming actions. The spiritual principle of the golden rule that transcends any one tradition is the ultimate expression of cause and effect. Do to others what you know you would want yourself. Don’t do to other what you know is harmful. Even if you don’t see the immediate connection between your loving actions and any earth shattering effect, do good anyway and believe that the universe will keep record and bring a balance of love in the world.
Stephen Colbert coined the phrase, “Reality has a well known liberal bias” in his famous roast of President Bush in 2006. Here is a slight variation on the phrase in relation to cause and effect- “The universe has a well known compassionate bias.” This means that you and I can conspire with the universe to spread compassion in the world. As Martin Luther King said “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” You’ve got to believe this is true and keep going. The path of human kindness is hard, unpredictable and rarely fair. You are in the middle of this path and have no idea how the story ends or even if it ends. So keep at it, do what you can and make sure that the arc of your best intentions bend towards a more decent world.
Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, said,
If you put love where there is no love, you will find love.
If you put peace where there is no peace, you will find peace.
If you put hope where there is no hope, you will find hope.