Bangkok, 30th August
God may not play with dice, as Einstein claimed, but the Universe surely does. The bombing at the Erawan shrine here in Bangkok two weeks ago brought that home forcefully. I have never been near the shrine, but my wife passes it quite regularly. In fact, the day of the blast she had passed it just a few hours before. If she had been running late, if earlier activities had got postponed, … A colleague of mine in the office should have been passing the shrine on the Skytrain on her way to the gym just when the bomb went off. But it so happened that that day her little boy was feeling unwell so she decided to cancel at the last minute. If her husband instead had stayed with the boy …
It must be the same with every terror attack. No doubt there were people who for one reason or another were not in the Twin Towers on September 11 when they normally would have been, or were closer to the exit than they normally would have been. Or in all those bomb attacks on markets or bus stations or other crowded places which take place with depressing regularity in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, or any other troubled spot on the planet, there must be a host of people who might well have been in the path of the blast, but for some small reason were not. And a host of people who were in the path of the blast who normally would not have been.
The same randomness comes out with painful clarity in War. I always remember a story in the book “The Good War” by Studs Terkel. Terkel wrote oral histories of the American people, based on the stories he collected from ordinary Americans. “The Good War” was a collection of stories from Americans involved in the Second World War in some way. This story was of two young soldiers, buddies in everything since the beaches of Normandy, who found themselves in a fire-fight during the Battle of the Bulge. One dived one way and caught a bullet, the other dived the other way and survived to tell Terkel the tale. He was forever guilty that he had been the lucky one. So many times you hear about this guilt! Men who ran through the hail of bullets and shrapnel of No Man’s Land in the First World War and survived while their comrades fell all around them. Why them?, they wondered afterwards. Why were they the lucky ones? They didn’t deserve it particularly.
Accidents also throw the essential randomness of it all into sharp relief. A few days after the Bangkok blast, a plane at an air show in the UK crashed onto a busy motorway. If those motorists who were killed had been driving a little slower, or a little faster, or had decided to use another route that morning, or had decided to cancel the trip altogether, … The routine accidents of everyday life, the ones that don’t make it to the front page, are no less random. If I had started crossing the street just a bit sooner, I would have been mown down by that tuk-tuk which suddenly made a sharp right. It just so happened that I was blocked for an instant by that other pedestrian who walked in front of me …
Sickness is the same. If that virus coughed out by that person had got wafted that way and not this, I wouldn’t now be sick in bed. Or dying. If that heart arrhythmia had been just a tad faster, or a titch slower, I wouldn’t be alive to marvel at it. If the surgeon’s knife had been a little more extensive the first time, or if that first operation had been one month sooner, the lovely lady we met when we first arrived in Bangkok would not now be dying ten floors above us of metastasized cancer.
And so it goes on throughout life. If I had done this, or not done that, or said it or not said it, or stepped here rather than there, just at that moment, how different things would be now!
Magic has tried to make us believe that we can beat the odds. Hang this amulet around your neck and the spears, or the arrows, or the bullets, will never find you. Religions instead have tried to help us accept the essential randomness of our lives. The Grim Reaper can come to pick you up at any time, so be ready. Be ready. Lead good lives, lead virtuous lives, so that when the knock on the door comes, you will have done everything in your power to go to Heaven than to Hell, to be reborn closer to final Nirvana.
Perhaps such a fatalistic approach is the best. You can be forever on the lookout, dodging and weaving, stepping smartly out of the way of the slings and arrows which life hurls at you, but in the end the dice will finally roll against you. If you have led a good, virtuous life, those who survive you can say, “he was a good man.” What better epitaph can one have than that?