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.