chaos theory, or why bad things happen to good people


For Ed Muter, who is sorely missed.

A friend of mine died recently after an awful two year battle with cancer. He was young, only 48, and a truly good man.  A great physician with a great love of life and his family, he was extremely intelligent, inquisitive and kind, lacking pretension and pretty unconcerned with the trappings of material wealth. He was funny in an impish sort of way without ever being mean and could make you feel like the smartest person in the room, even though you probably weren’t.

Ed was a Russian Jew who really lived up to that great Yiddish word mensch, which means being human in all the best ways one can be.

Of anyone I know, almost, Ed deserved a long happy life. As a man who lost his mother — and his mother country — when he was a young boy, he could have been a victim, a lost and idle soul, but instead he rose up from a rough start to become a stellar, highly accomplished human being.

So why him? Why not serial killers or rapists? Why not certain world leaders who perpetrate heinous crimes on a grand scale? Shouldn’t Ed, whose intentions, actions and energy were all positive, by rights live a long, happy, and fruitful life?

According to much of the self-help theories around abundance, visualization, quantum physics, creating your own reality, etc, he should have.

But I have another theory. It’s not new. It’s not innovative. But I think if we are baldly honest instead of holding onto wishful or magical thinking, I think we all know it to be true.

Here it is: Life is ruled by chaos. What we can control in our lives is minuscule compared with what we can’t.  It really isn’t someone’s fault that they were hit by a runaway bus or that they were a victim of random crime.

Crap just happens, and Ed’s death was total and utter crap.

I’m not a complete existentialist or nihilist, however. I do believe our actions and decisions– over which we have a modicum of control — can affect the outcome of our lives to some degree. And I believe we can create a great deal of intentional meaning through them, that they add up to a certain direction or path in life. We have choices about how we are going to react to the random hands we are dealt, choices that separate the good person from lost one, the self-created victim from the survivor, and so on.

It adds up, too. Call it karma, the law of attraction or being a righteous person, our choices ripple through the universe and back, affecting the course of history, the energy around us, the people we love. But no matter how “good” we are, how many chits we’ve piled up, there is no protection from inexhaustible chaos – we are powerless to avoid that runaway bus.

So, what is my point? And what is the point of being a good person if ultimately it can’t keep bad things from happening to us?

I guess it’s this: if you possibly can, live your life like there are no tomorrows, because they may be in shorter supply than you think.

But that doesn’t mean partying like it’s1999, uh…at least not all the time.

It means living well, striving to do no harm, leaving your corner of the world in better shape than you found it – being the best person you can be every day, despite curveballs, screwballs or other baseball metaphors that chaos throws at you.

In that tiny sphere of influence we have over what happens to us, Ed chose to create more positive than negative experiences for himself, his friends, his family and his patients. Bit by bit he shaped his life in a meaningful way, and the world is absolutely a better place for his having been in it.

And though he had regrets – he admitted to me the week before he died he wished he’d had more fun – and, as a human, couldn’t possibly have always made the right choices, he stayed true to a core that an unruly universe couldn’t shake.

He towed his line, and in so doing, and despite dying so young, I believe he ultimately won out over almighty chaos. That is his legacy, at least for me. I only hope I can live up to it.

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