Weeping for Stephanie

The Manila Times, January 20, 2013

Remember Stephanie Nicole Ella, the sweet 7-year old girl killed by a bullet that hit her in the head from a gun fired into the air to celebrate New Year’s Eve?

What were the odds for Stephanie to be at the wrong time and the wrong place for that bullet to end her life? Put in another way:  What are the chances for something 1 centimeter in diameter (a 45 caliber bullet) randomly propelled upwards to fall down to hit a particular small circle of 7 centimeters in radius (the top of Stephanie head) located in an area probably a million square centimeters?

What happened to Stephanie was a reverse, macabre lotto. Chances of winning in that game of choosing right six out of 45numbers  – or variables – have been computed by mathematicians to be 13 million to one.   For Stephanie though, the variables both in time and space would be billions. If the shooter had just pointed his gun a degree higher, if Stephanie had decided to wait a few seconds more before stepping out of her house, if she had just moved her head a few inches.. and so  on and so forth,  the bullet wouldn’t have hit her.  Yet it did.

The young girl’s tragedy bolsters the philosopher David Hume’s famous argument, derived from such a very old source as the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, which we paraphrase in tragic girl’s case:

Did God want to stop the bullet from hitting the beautiful innocent girl, but couldn’t? Then he is a powerless god, and therefore not really a God. Could he have stopped the bullet, but wouldn’t? Then he is a wicked, sadistic Deity.  If He is a powerful God that he could stop the bullet from hitting the innocent girl — by just deviating its flight by a centimeter, for example — and if He is All-Good that he was willing do so, then why did Stephanie get killed?  Clerics would jump up to respond: Because there is free will God gave to man. But in this case, the shooter didn’t certainly will to kill Stephanie.

I’d bet you’d get some goose pimples with this:

On the same New Year’s eve another young girl just three years older than Stephanie, Aaliyah Boyer in a quiet town of Elkton, Maryland was also hit in the head by a bullet fired into the air, termed in the US as “celebratory gunfire.”   Like Stephanie, Aaliya was watching fireworks when she suddenly slumped.  Like Stephanie, she died two days later.  On the same New Year’s Eve, in Florida, a boy three years older than Aaliyah, Diego Duran, was also hit in the head by celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve. Like Stephanie and Aaliyah he was just while watching fireworks until he suddenly fell to the ground.  Unlike the girls though, he survived, although with his brain damaged, one would wonder if he was luckier than the girls who died.

The Jaime Licaocos in our country  — the so-called paranormal experts and New Agers — would perhaps see Carl Jung’s idea of “synchronicity” there, or some other karmic mumbo jumbo that the three kids were together in their past lives, and he’d find some mystical explanation for the three-year difference in age of the three kids. “God moves in mysterious ways,” clerics would of course say and have said so often. What is the mystery in a life that could have been filled with many years of laughter and love yet was not?

In this age of rationality, we know that Stephanie, Aaliya, and Diego were hit in the head by bullets not because out of some mystical design, but out of pure chance.

(Of course there is also the fact that these kinds of tragedy happens only in societies with gun-cultures in which “celebratory firing” is not frowned upon.  Instances of such deaths occur only in countries with strong gun-cultures, such as, other than the US and the Philippines, Pakistan, several Middle Eastern nations, Paraguay, and Macedonia.)

“Shit happens”  — a conceptual cousin of Murphy’s Law — is probably the biggest insight of the second half of the last century.

It was once widely believed, because myths of a small desert tribe were preposterously decreed to be the words of God, that homo sapiens was created from dirt by a Deity. Most rational people now believe we are really products of chance – random changes first in a complex carbon-based molecule and then in what became DNA strings, undertaken through four billion years.

We are the best testament to the power of chance, the very unlikely convergence of so many variables.   One scientist estimated mathematically and using concrete data that chances of intelligent life like ours emerging in the universe is a very minuscule .01 percent (100 percent being certainty). Scientists have even made up a term for it:  The Goldilocks Theory, derived from that fairy tale girl’s preferred soup being “not too warm, not too cold”.  The theory – actually a conclusion – is that the factors that led to the emergence of life were so precisely right, that if just one thing were changed, we wouldn’t be here.   Just a few kilometers deviation of the earth’s 149.6 million distance from the sun, and we would have been frozen or fried”.

What were the chances of a big meteor from the vastness of space entering the solar system and hitting the earth, a very macro version of the bullet fired many kilometers away hitting Stephanie? Probably billions to one.  Yet astronomers have recently concluded that a large meteor had hit the earth five billion years ago –- to form the moon, which was nudged to such a precise distance away from the earth that the gravitational dynamics between the two bodies created crucial elements for the emergence of life, such as sea-tides and just the right speed of the earth’s rotation.

But “chance” is such a very cold idea it is horrifying.  We call it fate, if chance results in tragedy, as in Stephanie case.   We call it destiny if chance leads to some victory, as when the Corazon Aquino’s death less than a year before the 2010 elections catapulted his mediocre son to the presidency.

The ancient Greeks had brilliant insights, expressed in their mythology.  Every god in their vast pantheon was powerless before the Fates (Moirai), even the greatest of the gods Zeus, although he is portrayed as the incarnation of the Moirai.  It is not the gods nor even Zeus (which got to be the Latin Deus, the Spanish Dios and finally our Filipino “Diyos”) who really rule over men.  It is three Morai who determined from one’s birth the kind of life you’d live, its length and the manner of its ending.

Religion is in many ways humans’ coping behavior in the face of a haphazard, unfeeling universe:  That there is a Deity who would control Chance to satisfy our desires – but only if we worship it.  We pray to God to intervene in the random movement of lotto balls shaken in a container, so they’ll rest in positions representing the numbers we bet on.  Chance is transformed into Christianity’s   “God’s will”, and in Islam, “Insha’Allah” – the latter evolving, after several centuries of Muslim rule of the Iberian peninsula, into the Spanish ojala, and then into Filipino “Bahala na.”  The Greeks’ three Fates have been transmogrified into the Holy Trinity, with the tweak that in this new improved version, the Trinity can be convinced to change their minds for our wishes, just as long as we pay obeisance to them.

The uniqueness of man is not that we are intentional creatures, but that we are aware of our intentionality. We intend to do things, and we often succeed in doing things.   But those many successes create the illusion of us being the masters of our entire universe, until an equivalent of Stephanie’s bullet hits.   Her tragedy is what the very universe and our lives are about, and we tremble in that realization. To radically paraphrase the last line in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous poem: We weep for Stephanie, but it is also ourselves we mourn for.

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