Several years ago I was working on a public health campaign in Birmingham, Alabama and heard some news that put a tragically capital R in Random. A woman driving downtown stopped at an intersection and waited for the light to change. What she didn’t know is that she had stopped her car directly over a water main manhole cover. What she also didn’t know, and could not have known, is that the city was experiencing a massive pressure surge in the water main, which was building in intensity as she approached the intersection.
In the handful of minutes that she waited for a green light, the pressure surge reached the part of the water main where her car had stopped, and–having hit the weakest part of the pipeline–erupted as a geyser of scorching hot steam through the manhole. She was steamed to death in her car like a lobster in a pot of boiling water.
It’s difficult to imagine the odds of such an exceptionally random event, but I did some rough figuring and came up with about 1 in 500,000 (taking into account the average number of drivers in downtown Birmingham, the number of manholes, and the chance of that sort of water pipeline problem happening; I later learned that it’s called a “water hammer”). I’m sure my figures are off, but whatever the actual number is, there’s no question the chances of dying that way are remote.
And yet, on one idle afternoon when everything seemed just as normal as any other day, it happened.
I’ve mentally packaged that event with several similarly random occurrences—tragic or otherwise—and come to believe that negotiating randomness is everyone’s unarticulated full-time job whether they know it or not. And perhaps predictably, my experience has been that merely saying that makes a lot of people really mad.
What sparks the anger, I think, is the insinuation that we can’t really stabilize our lives—only attempt to manage an undercurrent that moment-to-moment threatens to wreck what we’ve wrought. That’s not exactly the same as saying that you don’t have control, but that the control you truly have is a fraction of what you think you do.
Understandably, we want to believe in an underlying order more reliable than randomness is chaotic. For some that order is top-down: God is in control. For others it’s bottom-up: natural law keeps everything more or less in-sync, however that works. For still others it’s ethereal. People in the third category say things like, “everything happens for a reason” and “it must be his/her/my destiny.” There’s no real answer to “why” or “how” or even “who”—just an investment in a nondescript power that makes sense of everything, somehow.
Aside from those approaches, we also have the Invictus position, named for the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. The final stanza:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
This is a macho sort of reaction to randomness—a “take on the world” approach. It doesn’t have the otherworldly veneer of the others, but it’s just as incomplete in practice—however good it might make us feel to repeat it.
All of these beliefs and positions are mental safety valves to release pressure accumulated by witnessing hard realities. As a recent study suggests, our fear of randomness is at the heart of many of our closely held beliefs.
What I want to tackle in a sequel to this post is whether these reactions to randomness are, ironically, fueling many of the problems that make our lives on earth all the more tenuous.