The Infinite Chain of Causality

Not to get all philosophical on you, but do you ever ponder much about the concept of cause and effect? “Zzzzzz,” you’re thinking to yourself. What’s this idiot on about this week? Bear with me for a moment and I’ll see if I’m able to connect the dots for you.

Several weeks ago, a longtime friend and I were sitting outside the Rogers Centre in Toronto, waiting to watch my beloved Blue Jays get hammered one more time before the players headed off for another long winter of golf. As we munched on our traditional pre-game street meat treat, somehow we got onto the topic of our friendship, which dates back to a particularly random introduction over 30 years ago.

The two of us were both attending an interview session for a popular college program in Kitchener-Waterloo, hoping to be two of just 25 applicants selected from a group of several hundred hopefuls, which, in turn, had already been narrowed down from multiple hundreds more.

Just prior to the interview, I’d realized that, after flying more than a thousand miles to be there, I’d left my entire portfolio back at my hotel room, which was far, far across town. I must have had a particularly dejected look on my face because, suddenly, another potential student came up to ask if I was having a problem.

I explained my dilemma and this kindly stranger offered to drive me back to the hotel and retrieve my missing portfolio. Long story short, this Good Samaritan not only got me to my interview on time, but the pair of us ended up in the same program and became lifelong friends.

Take away any tiny thread in that anecdote and the result is that we never get to know each other – and our lives both take off in completely different directions. Cause and effect, my friends.

But, the story hardly ends there. A few years later, while working in Sarnia, a buddy of mine who lived in Kitchener at the time invited me to come spend the weekend celebrating the 40th birthday of a common friend, who just happens to be the above-mentioned Good Samaritan. Not so strange, you’re thinking. Oh, just wait.

The buddy also happens to have a roommate, someone I had formally worked with in Sarnia. On the same precise weekend, the roommate’s girlfriend just happened to invite her own best friend from Sarnia for a visit.

If you’re wondering where this is all leading, let’s jump ahead a bit. The roommate’s girlfriend and I ended up staying at the same house in Kitchener on the same weekend, hit it off, fell in love, got married, had three wonderful children and, somehow, landed back here where, some quarter-century later yours truly is writing this very column that you’re reading at this precise moment.

So, now you’ve heard the effect of a chance meeting way back in 1981 that would have never happened if, somehow, my friend and I hadn’t both been fated to arrive at exactly the same interview 33 years ago.

But, as my friend pointed out the other week at the Rogers Centre, why stop there? Why not consider the circumstances that led us both to be there on that serendipitous day? Why had I decided to apply for this particular course after being out of school for a year and wondering where I wanted to go with my life? Why had my friend decided to go back to school years and years after working in a civil service job? And how many millions of causes and effects had to take place for our paths to intersect precisely when they did?

Think of your own life and how you ended up where you are at this exact moment. Think of all the causes and effects of all the decisions you’ve made in your life – and exactly how they all link together. And when you’re done that, think back to your parents and what led them to create you in the first place. Or the parents of your spouse or your friends.

Why stop there? Why not consider your parents’ parents and their parents and all the generations that came before them? If any of these dozens or thousands or millions of people you’re considering had made even one tiny alteration in their lives, how would the effects have changed the course of their existence and, in turn, your ultimate existence?
Deep stuff, huh?

As my friend and I finished our snacks and proceeded to return our thoughts to the present, it was with an infinitesimally enlarged perspective of what had brought us to this point in our lives. There is a mystical, magical, spiritual chain that links my friend and I together – and every person who has been part of that chain. Our past, our present and our future are inextricably joined in a great continuum built from the millions of causes and millions of effects that have occurred during the roller coasters of our lives – and long before we were born.

I won’t be with my friend when he celebrates his birthday on October 8th. Perhaps we won’t even talk on the phone or exchange e-mails. But, we will be bonded together nonetheless, just as we have been for more than three decades and, reaching back, as we’ve likely been conjoined for many millennia before that in ways we’ll never know. All courtesy of the infinite chain of causality.

Gazing Into A Crystal Ball

Imagine being able to predict the future, knowing what lies ahead in your life and all the amazing changes that are in store for our world. This past week, I found an unread magazine in a kitchen cupboard and glanced briefly at the date, noticing it was from June. I got absorbed in a fascinating feature article about the history and future of Calgary before something suddenly seemed amiss and I checked the publication date again. As it turned out, I hadn’t looked closely enough, because the magazine actually turned out to be from June of 2012. Oops.

Unless you’ve been hiding out in a bomb shelter the last month, you know what kind of unprecedented maelstrom the great city of Calgary has been going through lately. Massive flooding, extended blackouts, a state of emergency and derailed freight trains are just some of the tests the residents have been put through. Somehow, they’ve still managed to pull it all together in time to hold their signature Calgary Stampede, which is a massive tribute to its citizens’ fortitude, resilience and positive attitude.

Of course, reading an article from last year, it was like none of this had ever happened – because, of course, it hadn’t yet. If that same article was written about the city today, it makes you wonder how differently it would have turned out.

Similarly, another article was about the financial and artistic success of Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil, the worldwide billion-dollar entertainment juggernaut. How things have changed in the 12 months since that article came out. In January, the company announced the layoff of 400 employees, close to ten percent of its workforce. On top of that, a veteran Cirque acrobat died during a performance in Las Vegas at the end of last month, the first fatality in the troupe’s nearly 30-year history.

Again, with those earth-shattering changes taking place, how would a story about the Cirque du Soleil be different if it was being written today, rather than being composed a year ago?

All of this made me ponder the precious, unpredictable nature of our lives. Day after day, we go about our business without giving much thought to what could possibly lie ahead. I am guiltier of this than just about anybody. Routinely, I take for granted my family, my friends, my health and, indeed, my very life. And I bet that applies to many people.

When our anniversary comes up each year, we might thank our spouse for being there for us. If our boss gives us a pat on the back or a small raise, it reminds us that we’re lucky to have a job. When Canada Day passes each year, we think about how fortunate we are to live in a free country with universal health care and a decent standard of living. But, for so many of our days we’re content to let life wash over us, without stopping to consider how quickly it could all be gone.

Not to be too dramatic, but everything we have, every single person we hold close to our hearts, all the tiny things that make our lives what they are could be gone in an instant. Boom. That’s it.

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” Although she may not be the world’s most eloquent philosopher, Oprah Winfrey was definitely on to something when she said those words.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big or wanting more, but it’s easy to get caught up in chasing rainbows – when many of those rainbows are already yours to enjoy. Right here. Right now. People used to say, “Take time to stop and smell the roses.” There are likely hundreds of other quotes and song lyrics and philosophies that restate the same premise in a different way.

However you want to say it, absolutely no one knows what’s around the next corner, let alone what the future holds down its long, winding, unpredictable path. All we can know for sure is what we have at this very moment – and how important it is to take every tiny morsel of our lives and celebrate it for all it’s worth. The party starts now.