Try this sometime: watch the news, and see if you can separate what’s accidental from what isn’t.

A truckload of oranges overturns on an onramp, closing highway access for three hours; a drunk driver kills a family of four in a head-on collision; a piano falls on an unsuspecting and unlucky person below. A child shoots a sibling when a handgun goes off; a roof blows off a school in a hurricane; a pedestrian’s foot is crushed by the tires of a passing truck; a schoolgirl is shot in a drive-by shooting. Are these all accidents?

Some would say some yes, some no. Let’s see if we can figure out the difference. Here’s a dictionary definition:

acˑciˑdent n. 1. an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury  2. an event that happens by chance or that is without apparent or deliberate cause

We may agree that the examples in the first paragraph were “unfortunate incidents” that all resulted in “damage or injury”—but were all of them “unexpected and unintentional” without “apparent or deliberate cause?”

We usually reserve that determination for the courts or the insurance company. That’s because, in most cases, we want someone or something to blame for causing the unfortunate event, even if it is an “Act of God,” as if God would cause misery and death willy-nilly.

In this contingent physical reality we call the world, every effect has a cause, whether we can see it or not. When the wind blows the chimes and makes beautiful music, the effect is attached to and coincident with or subsequent to the cause. The long-established rule of cause and effect, or causality, forms the basis of every scientific discovery and theory. The Baha’i teachings agree, saying “unto every effect there must be a cause.”Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, p. 16.

So is every accident really an accident? Should we blame the worn-out brakes on the SUV that crashed into a house, even though the driver was drunk or stoned?

It seems we need a new word for “accident,” to separate truly accidental or unidentifiable causes from identifiable, blameworthy causes. That’s why we have legal distinctions between premeditated murder, murder, justifiable homicide, and manslaughter. We need to own up to the fact that too many “accidents” are caused by the carelessness and unthinking ways of common and uncommon folk (such as criminals in many cases), rather than truly accidental causes like the snapping ropes binding that high-flying piano.

But even in that case, we can ask, why weren’t stronger ropes used to raise the piano? Why didn’t the truck driver with crates of oranges take the turn slower? Why was the handgun accessible to children playing alone at home?

I would have indeed been shocked if my insurance rates had shot up after a recent driver on my neighborhood street plowed into my parked car.

Of course, no one can stop a hurricane or an earthquake—those kinds of natural events truly meet the definition of accidental. But few true accidents happen when it comes to adult human interaction—we all have responsibility for what we do, and the Baha’i teachings say we will each face up to that responsibility either here in this world or in the next:

Know ye that the world and its vanities and its embellishments shall pass away. Nothing will endure except God’s Kingdom which pertaineth to none but Him, the Sovereign Lord of all, the Help in Peril, the All-Glorious, the Almighty. The days of your life shall roll away, and all the things with which ye are occupied and of which ye boast yourselves shall perish, and ye shall, most certainly, be summoned by a company of His angels to appear at the spot where the limbs of the entire creation shall be made to tremble, and the flesh of every oppressor to creep. Ye shall be asked of the things your hands have wrought in this, your vain life, and shall be repaid for your doings. This is the day that shall inevitably come upon you, the hour that none can put back. To this the Tongue of Him that speaketh the truth and is the Knower of all things hath testified. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 125.

As mature beings, our job in life involves accepting and fulfilling our responsibility for the things our “hands have wrought.” That deeply spiritual responsibility means we should endeavor to be no cause of grief to any other human being.

Before you pull out of the driveway, test your brakes. Don’t drive if you’re impaired. If you own a weapon, keep it in a locked case with the key on your person. But more than all that, spend some time each day contemplating whether you’ve caused anyone any grief or sadness, and resolve, before the end of that day, to do what you can to rectify and repair your actions.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

8 Comments

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  • Herb Dreyer
    May 24, 2017
    A worthy subject done well. You might be interested in Arthur Koestler's "The Roots of Coincidence ".
  • Feb 04, 2017
    Such a helpful article. As a mental health practioner my focus is on helping individuals take responsibility without beating themselves up in the process because this almost guarantees behavior will continue due to the traumatizing of our own immature self that then retards growth and development.
  • Zeresh Doula Altork
    Feb 04, 2017
    Connie exactly what I was thinking! EVERYTHING has a cause! :)
  • Feb 04, 2017
    I am copying part of this article to save in my journal so I can refer back to it again and again. Thank you so much Rodney!
  • Feb 04, 2017
    Science is providing, daily, evidence of the interconnectedness of all matter which is, in the end, energy. It is, therefore, not unthinkable that even the weather and natural events are also, to some extent, connected to our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
  • rodney Richards
    Feb 03, 2017
    Daniel, thanks for your comment. I was trying to distinguish from what too many call accidents, as if they were unavoidable or without cause (and they are not partly or fully to blame), from unforeseen events. Like your chain, what we do agree on as accidents, Acts of God, exist, where we may know the cause but man, necessarily, is not blameworthy. Bottom line, I think we call too many things accidents when they surely are not.
    Also, please share succinctly what you mean when saying "is not how Baha'u'llah explains the world."
  • Feb 03, 2017
    The problem with assigning a cause to an accident is that it is based on black-and-white, either-or logic. This is how the legal system works, but it is not how the real world works and it is not how Baha'u'llah explains the world. Most accidents are the end result of a chain of events, most of which we have some degree of control over. Accidents are possible because we and the rest of the universe have been given free will.
    • Hooshang S. Afshar
      Feb 05, 2017
      Daniel, you say "we and the rest of the universe have been given free will." This a philosophical statement that is too deep for me to understand. Do inanimate, nonliving objects like mountains, etc. have will?