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Story-telling against Absurdity March 22, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.

In Spokane, WA a trial has just ended with a Not Guilty verdict: One night in November 2005 a motorist, Clifford Helm, was driving on the wrong side of the road and plowed into a car with a father and his five children; all five children died in the crash. Since Helm refused to talk to the police, there was suspicion of drugs or alcohol being involved, but that was apparently not the case. At trial, the prosecution claimed he was on the cellphone, having an argument with his wife; the defense claimed he’d had a coughing spell and fainted. There was no medical evidence of a fainting spell, and the cellphone records were deleted by mistake by the prosecution, so it came down to whether the jury believed that this was vehicular homicide or an accident. They went with “accident” (involuntary manslaughter was apparently not an option), and Helm and his cellphone are free to drive on.

            That’s the short version of the story. What I would like to share with you is a newspaper column/blog about the case, written by Spokesman-Review columnist Rebecca Mack. In her column, “Still seeking explanation for tragedy,” Mack analyzes the underlying reasons why this case has been occupying the minds of the community, and continues to do so: She says that it isn’t so much that people are unhappy with the verdict because they want revenge or retribution for the five little children—they just want to understand, so that the same thing will not happen to them or their kids, on some dark road, and the verdict (and the driver’s reticence) doesn’t offer anyone that comfort. In philosophical terms, the case reveals the absurdity and enormity of unpredictable life, and the powerlessness of every one of us when trying to take all the preventive measures that will keep us alive. Sometimes we can, but not all the time. Essentially, what Mack has uncovered is our narrative urge, the need to tell stories that make sense, so we are not overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of the universe. And (in case you now think that I think everything is meaningless) then it is up to us to create the meaning, maybe a partial little meaning, within our own little sector of reality. Many of us do that, anyway, and sometimes even appropriately, casting blame on (perhaps) the county’s failure in ensuring that the signage was sufficient, or on cellphone companies that endanger the public. Some of us are attracted to the concept of karma; some of us choose to think that there is a higher meaning which will be revealed to us at some point when we are no longer part of this reality. Some of us just hug our loved ones—people and pets—and hope for the best. The surviving parents who lost their five children are Mennonites, and have invited the driver into their midst, having forgiven him for the pain he has caused—because they have a Narrative that works for them. It probably isn’t a narrative that works for most of us, and that is why the story of the driver who killed the five children is so disturbing—it is complete in its incompleteness, so to speak. There is no illusion of comfort in the verdict; if we want comfort, we have to seek and find it ourselves.



1. philagon - March 25, 2008

“And (in case you now think that I think everything is meaningless) then it is up to us to create the meaning…”


Contrived meaning, retrograde to an event, has no intentionality or purpose.

2. cato on the greens - March 27, 2008

We are not existence, existence is the act of, we are it’s conceuqence, but we need not be confined by the act of, and we are constantly recreating ourselves and the meaning of life, because the meaning of life is within our contrived perception. If meaning is within the self, contrived, then life is not meaningless.

Cato on the Greens

3. Huan - March 29, 2008

I’ve come to a stop trying to come up with reasons on why exactly adversarial absurdity causes the seek for comfort. The best I can come up with has to do with a previous blog entry from Professor Furrow regarding the brain and its ancient tendency for dogmatism. Perhaps some prehistoric gene that’s still in us causes us to tend to seek comfort even if we are in no danger from the perspective of evolution. So in other words even if we’re not in danger of dying we still seek a place to belong, an identity, a guideline for life to make sense of the absurdity like Professor Rosenstand suggests. (But I’m rather unsatisfied with putting everything on genetics.)

I think holding our values dearly to create comfort in the face of absurdity is rather detrimental to our personal growth and the state of the world. It seems to me that this is the source of all the world’s conflicts, an unconditional trust for one’s convictions. We’re anchoring ourselves in the vast ocean, only to be stuck in one place, being unable and unwilling to see past our own line of sight.

So this is looks like another job for the Ubermensch, humanity’s tendency for story-telling against absurdity is something that might need to be overcome.

4. philagon - March 31, 2008

Life is not meaningless. If meaning were contrived, then life would be meaningless.

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