“Nothing is random”

There are days when you wake up, the sun is shining in a cloudless sky, and with the click of a mouse or flick of a TV remote, a few words or a single image can alter perceptions of time and space. The morning of 9/11 when I turned on CNN while making coffee was such a day. Today, it was reading a blog entry about the suicide of someone I didn’t even know.

I live with my wife on the island of Oahu in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Yet I’m still connected to my past life in New Jersey and New York through the media, internet sites and memories that have dimmed over time. As you get older, tragic news — big or small — piles up to the point you must find ways to reconcile the unfairness or seemingly-random nature of the universe with your personal beliefs.

Since I am an agnostic, who does not rely on faith in a specific God to sooth my soul, and do not believe in Heaven and Hell as afterlife destinations, I am left to find solace in my own concept of a Higher Power. After 9/11, for some reason I remembered a passage from Mark Helprin’s book, Winter’s Tale which was published in 1983 and is set in a magical version of New York City. The words he wrote have stayed with me through the years:

Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another.

Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one can be certain.

And yet there is a wonderful anarchy, in that the milkman chooses when to arise, the rat picks the tunnel into which he will dive when the subway comes rushing down the track from Borough Hall, and the snowflake will fall as it will. How can this be? If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple.

Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given – so we track it, in linear fashion, piece by piece. Time, however, can be easily overcome; not by chasing light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once.

The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is – and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful.

In the end, or rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.

To me, those words are poetry. I had first read Winter’s Tale before I moved to Hawaii in 1985 and met my future wife, Isabel. When we got married, I asked the minister to read that passage during the wedding ceremony. I’ve told Isabel that I want it read at my services when I pass on, because it sums up how I feel about our brief existence in this world.

Today I’m sharing it with you because a fellow writer, Julie Gray, asked her blog followers to write something this weekend, just as she was writing in an effort to come to terms with the death of her brother, who took his own life. She asked, why? Although none of us can answer that question for him, I think writers and artists — people who are often sensitive to a fault — probably can imagine the kind of personal pain he was going through. Most of all, it’s a feeling of hopelessness. Everything seems meaningless.

Then I reread those words by Mark Helprin, and it all makes sense to me. The internet, media, memories, all like the electrons he describes; flashes of thought and feelings being transcribed into pixels and neurons; connecting distant friends and strangers for fleeting moments that sometimes transcend the morning tragedy that brought us together.

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Here’s a link to Julie’s screenwriting blog. In addition to being a writer, she’s been a professional script reader for production companies and is a highly regarded script consultant. But most of all, she champions good writing and pushes screenwriters to aim higher and to live with passion.

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