Wednesday, September 2, 2009



This morning I thought about how fast some things change. Sometimes history can change in an instant. So can our lives as individuals. Developments are not always measured or even reasonable. Sometimes we deserve things; sometimes reason scolds us because we "should have anticipated results." Yet sometimes events strike from the blue and change everything overnight. There is no logic in these sudden changes. They defy the notion that life can be planned. In large part, they strengthen my belief that something beyond reason and "chance" works in our lives.

In 1942, the Japanese were winning the Pacific War. In May, a Japanese fleet was steaming toward Midway Island. The Japanese planned to destroy America's aircraft carriers and take the island. Japanese pilots were far superior to the Americans at this stage in the war. They had experience. They had high morale. They had never lost a battle. They had every reason to think they would win the upcoming battle.

But they did not. By chance, the Japanese had to switch their bombers from ground attack mode after they discovered American ships nearby. For twenty minutes, all their bombers stood dangerously exposed on carrier flight decks while crew members switched torpedoes to bombs. Fuel was strewn all over the place. At that precise moment, an American bomber squadron was overhead. They had no idea the Japanese were refueling and rearming. The American bombers swooped down at this critical moment. They sank three of Japan's four mightiest carriers in five minutes. It was pure luck. Japan never recovered from this catastrophic blow. For better or worse, America did not win the Battle of Midway by skill. They won because they profited from fortune.

Such moments do not just occur in war. They occur in everyday lives, too. Consider my life partner's story. One night two years ago, he walked into a gym. At that moment, he was healthy and had everything to live for. He suffered a freak burn accident in the gym. He spent 15 days in an ICU and almost died several times. Since then, he has never been the same. One moment he was healthy. The next moment, he was crippled. Bizarre accidents happen to many people; I report this incident because I know about it. I have seen how (mis)fortune can radically transform individual lives in an instant.

Things do not always change gradually. Sometimes they change without reason, defying our expectations. Our assumptions can transform in an instant. Sometimes fortune strikes for the better. Other times, it strikes for the worse. No matter how fortune falls, it defies our logic. We cannot account for "randomness," yet "random" events change history and our own lives in equal measure. Some say that we can predict events based on circumstances from which to make "educated guesses" about the future. Yet no one could have made an "educated guess" about the Japanese refueling their planes at the moment the American bombers were overhead, nor could I have made an "educated guess" about the disaster that befell my life partner. When fortune falls, our logic appears woefully inadequate.

Should we then embrace destiny? Does some other power ordain these seemingly random events? I have written that destiny appeals to me--even as an empiricist--because my all-too human senses can neither prove nor disprove it. I am content to believe that there are things I cannot know. This does not mean I subscribe to a particular religion. Rather, studying history and experiencing life both teach me that it is mature to acknowledge limitations to our capacity for knowledge in this world. By the same token, I am deeply skeptical of anyone who claims that "he can know" anything in life. He obviously has not suffered a random misfortune.

On the other hand, perhaps everything is truly random. There is no way to say one way or the other. Yet that is a disheartening thought.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of a quote from Lin Yutang:

So we are left with the uncomfortable and yet, for me, strangely satisfying feeling that what religion is left in our lives will be a very much more simplified feeling of reverence for the beauty and grandeur and mystery of life, with its responsibilities, but will be deprived of the good old, glad certainties and accretions which theology has accumulated and laid over its surface...many men today are quite content to be just dead when they die....The only difference is that the Chinese pagan is honest enough to leave the Creator of Things in a halo of mystery, toward whom he feels a kind of awed piety and reverence. What is more, that feeling suffices for him.

Anonymous said...

Thoroughly enjoy your satire, but the poignancy of THIS piece is something special.

Timoteo said...

Whoops, something didn't work right--the "anonymous" commenter is me.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I was in a brooding mood when I wrote this, most likely induced by all the Dostoevsky I've been reading. One of Dostoevsky's main themes is "unknowability" in human existence, as well as the "suddenness" of events. At the same time, his characters simply guess about what things mean without any real claim to "truth." Well, they think they know the truth, but that's the whole irony.

I used the word "maturity" in this piece to refer to our ability to accept "unknowability" in our lives. Those who don't do this (or can't) inevitably become hypocrites or worse. Sadly, virtually every lawyer I know lacks the capacity to acknowledge "unknowability" in life. After all, lawyers (and most other professionals) get the false impression that "anything can be studied and learned" because they all study so much. But this is a grave error, and it leads to grave spiritual crisis.

Anonymous said...

"Unknowability" is a good word. We cannot even truly know where the matter under our finger nails came from. Our whole existence is a mystery.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Mystery is a good word, too. I think one of the reasons I took such an interest in ancestry is because it sheds some light on the question: "Who am I and why am I here?" After all, if it weren't for the conduct of thousands of relatives in the past, we literally would not be here today. Although we never solve the ultimate mystery during our lives, ancestry partially answers things about our likes, dislikes, wants, desires and idiosyncrasies--namely, the "things that make us us."

But it still does not provide knowledge in matters that cannot be known.

Anonymous said...

There is a logical explanation for everything... except for the existence of logic itself.