Christina Patterson: Try as we might, we can't control randomness

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The Independent Online

At a hotel in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago, I watched a boy drown. A man rushed in to rescue the flailing body in the water, but he couldn't save him. "He didn't make it," said the hotel manager, visibly distressed, but keen to soothe ruffled tourist feathers. "It was his fate."

At Madrid airport on Thursday, grieving relatives demanded justice. "I'll kill the bastards who did this," shouted one man. And who can blame him? Who, surveying the vestiges of a wrecked life, and facing the prospect of identifying a wife, or daughter or lover burnt beyond any human recognition, would not want to kill the "bastards" responsible? But who do you kill? The pilot (already dead) who aborted the take-off after the critical "point of no return"? The official who authorised it? The engineer who mended (but perhaps not well enough) the fault in the heating system? God?

We don't yet know what exactly caused this horrific disaster, and we may never know. The black box will be examined, as it always is on these occasions, and maybe it will yield its secrets and maybe it won't, and maybe lessons can be learnt and applied and maybe they can't. We can, however, be pretty sure that until that moment when weeping, bleeding, excreting human beings are replaced by a robotic master race – one that functions, unlike our current technology, without glitches, crashes and that cheering little message "a fatal exception has occurred" – human error, that fly in the ointment of the human operating system, will remain.

And so, of course, will so-called "acts of God". No human could have stopped that epic shift on the ocean floor three and a half years ago that killed 300,000 people and wiped out the homes of millions more. No human government, on the other hand, could have done much worse at mopping up the mess and managing the aftermath than the corrupt, inept collection of Sri Lankan officials who were quick to collect the millions that poured in, but extremely slow to transform it into help or new homes. No government except, perhaps, the most powerful in the Western world, the one that poured "aid" into South Ossetia last week, but whose response to an act of God in its own back yard – in picturesque, poor New Orleans – was a little less swift.

In both cases, there was grief, of course, and anger, but also resignation. Sri Lankans (69 per cent Buddhist and pretty much 100 per cent horoscope-reading) believe in fate. Inhabitants of the flooded districts of New Orleans (largely poor, largely black, largely church-going) believe in fate of a different kind. They know that the American dream, the one where you get suddenly catapulted from poverty to the presidency is about as likely – less likely, actually – as escaping from your uninsured, wrecked home and being shot for looting. They know, in fact, to borrow the title of a bestseller from some years ago, that Bad Things Happen to Good People.

The richer people are, the more surprised they are when Bad Things Happen. The more surprised they are, in other words, by the randomness of life. The more we get, the more we want, and the more we believe we can get what we want. The people who sold those creative little financial packages known as "collateral debt obligations" never thought that they would explode in their faces, and trigger mass economic misery, because they were the boys with the Midas touch. They, after all, were the "masters of the universe".

When good things happen, we take the credit. When bad things happen, we rush to blame. (In the case of the "credit crunch" we should, in fact, be allocating more blame to those greedy chancers and less blame to the butterfly wing of fate.) But actually, as Leonard Mlodinow argues in his new book, The Drunkard's Walk (a title taken from Einstein's description of the random movement of particles), we should be paying more attention to the randomness of life and reaching less simplistic conclusions about failure and success. "We place too much confidence," he says, "in the overly precise predictions of people – political pundits, financial experts, business consultants – who claim a track record demonstrating expertise... The study of randomness tells us that the crystal-ball view of events is possible, unfortunately, only after things happen."

So where does this leave us? Relaxed, if you're a Buddhist. Shit-scared, if you're a control freak. Anxious, if you're the MP for a well-off constituency in a flood plain. And, if you're the relative of someone killed in a tsunami, or an air crash, or a knifing in Peckham, it just leaves you prostrate with grief.

The answer, if there is one, is surely to do what we can. In the words of the old prayer, it's to find the grace to accept the things that can't be changed, the courage to change the things that can, and the wisdom to know the difference. In a spirit, you might hope, of seizing opportunities, partying like there's no tomorrow, and living each day as if it might be your last. It might.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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