Several days ago, I woke up this morning to a notification on my phone. This one was from Facebook. The fiancé of one of my son’s friends had posted. His post was about the loss of my son’s friend, Caroline, one year ago. It was this friend’s death that ultimately led to my son’s suicide. It was the loss of the bright light that his friend exuded that so darkened his world that he didn’t know how there would be light again.
For me, it started a clock. Its tick, tick, ticking remained with me for several days, as one life unfolds unto another. It feels as if there’s a train that’s left the station and hasn’t arrived yet – but the tracks have only one destination.
The Last Turnoff
I’m struck by the inevitability of it all. Certainly, I can’t change the outcome – no one can. My son is dead, his friend is dead, and so is one other friend. The question that looms is at what point could three lives – or even just one – have been saved? When did we pass the railway switch that led to different outcomes, and instead became locked onto a single track – a near certainty?
Even today, I don’t know what I could have said or done to help my son, Alex, realize that life wasn’t hopeless, and that grief would eventually change (but never go away). Having spoken with him twice the day he died, and knowing that he was similarly connected to his mom and siblings, I just don’t know what should or could have been done.
As I move backwards through the chain of seemingly causal events, I wonder what if his friend, Caroline, hadn’t interrupted the car robbery. What if she had slept in? Maybe she could have been sick that day. Certainly, I didn’t wish harm on her; in my brief time with her, she was an amazing person. However, what if she hadn’t confronted the robber? What if she hadn’t become who she was – someone of high honor and integrity – who felt like she had to stop injustice in the world?
I feel for her fiancé, whom I’ve never met. The questions swimming in his mind must be deafening. What if he had been the one to confront the robber? What if he had held her back? (I’m not sure that would have been possible – but presuming it was.) It always feels as if there must be something that could be done. We believe in our personal agency, our ability to influence things, so strongly that certainly there must be something we could do.
However, at some point, our chance for personal agency has stopped. We can no longer stop or change the events that are going to happen.
After the Bullet is Fired
We can accept this at some level. No one believes they’re going to stop a bullet from hitting its target once it’s been fired from the gun. There’s not enough time. There’s not enough influence. Yet we wonder where the edge of our influence is. In the moments before the bullet was fired, what could we have done?
The question is specific, but the problem is not. When does our ability to influence – or, more importantly, to change – the outcome stop and inevitability begin? The answer seems to be that we cannot know. We can’t know when the outcomes are so probable that they reach near certainty.
It’s About the Outcome
When near certainties are towards positive outcomes, we’re thrilled. We aim for retirement savings that will provide for our golden years with near certainty. However, when the outcomes are negative, like the need to declare bankruptcy or the death of a loved one, we want to prevent the outcome, the event, and the near certainty.
As I roll further back, I wonder what could have been done to stop the robber from going out that day, to that parking lot, to Caroline’s car. I realize that this is a zero-sum game. If it wasn’t her car, it would be someone else’s; another family would lose their precious daughter, fiancée, and friend. So further back, I go wondering if the robber’s father’s own prison sentence and his crimes didn’t lead his son down a path. What if someone had paid attention to him, gave him a job, shown concern for him, or a million other ways that might have redirected his life?
Certainly, then, the change could have been made. If he didn’t feel trapped and that stealing was the only way to make things work, then Caroline’s life would have been saved – and the two more lives that followed hers could have been saved as well.
The Law of Unintended Outcomes
The problem, as I move further and further back, is I know that the outcomes are subject to the law of unintended outcomes. The further back we go, the less likely it is that we can predict the outcome. As more and more variables are added in, we become less and less likely to predict the outcomes. As we go further and further back, we have no idea what the outcomes may be.
The robber’s second grade teacher has no way of knowing that offering him a second chance at a failed paper may one day make the difference in four lives – including his. There’s no way to know what single act of kindness, mercy, or support may have changed the future in a positive way.
So, then, we can’t go too far back, because to do so makes it as impossible to predict as it seems impossible to stop. We’re caught between predictability and certainty. We have no way of knowing – and we have no way of changing. We’re left with the tragedy of acceptance.