Over the last two months, there has been a lot of depressing news on television and the internet. For example, in the early morning of July 20 in Aurora, Colorado, a masked gunman shot and killed twelve moviegoers at a Dark Knight premier. One month earlier, on June 2, a gunman opened fire on shoppers in Toronto’s Eaton Center. Several weeks later, three people were murdered right here at the University of Alberta, in HUB Mall. These are all heart-wrenching stories, and I often grapple with the fact that the victims will never come back. One moment they’re alive. They’re thinking their own thoughts, chatting with their friends, and one second later, they’re dead. There’s no predicting events like this.
Imagine that you are Jessica Ghawi, one of the victims in the July 20 movie-theatre shooting. If you read her eloquent blog entry on June 2, you’ll learn that she was in Toronto at the time of the Eaton Center shooting. At 6:20, she stood near the location where the gunman opened fire – three minutes later, at 6:23, If it wasn’t for a peculiar feeling that led her to the outdoors for some fresh air, chances are she would have perished. However, what is even more unimaginable is that Ghawi became one of the twelve victims at the July 20 shooting in Aurora, Colorado. What are the odds?
I’ve been thinking about these events over the last months. I’ve been wondering what it is that makes people commit these awful crimes. I struggle with small bouts of depression, on an off-and-on basis, when I think about the children that no longer have a mother or father, or the parents that have lost children. It’s impossible to fully empathize with those that have been directly affected by the events, but it’s still important to try. That way, we can provide each other with the support needed to cope with such traumatic experiences.
I’m writing this article for another reason, however, and it deals with the paradox of control. Over the last year, I’ve spent dozens of hours thinking about control. Simply put, the idea that we have such profound control over our own lives, and yet, we don’t. Although I am only twenty-one years old, and have much to experience, I feel that this is one of life’s major paradoxes. Every person thinks unique thoughts, makes decisions and takes actions, exercising control over life. On the other hand, the course of our lives depends enormously on others’ actions.
We have an incredible capacity to influence the course of our lives. The human brain is a phenomenal thing, and it has propelled us to incredible inventions. If you’re outside, look up at the sky.Pause for a moment. Reflect on the fact that it is truly amazing that we are able to escape our atmosphere. Not only can we build planes that cruise well above the clouds overhead; we can literally escape the gravitational pull of the planet, land on the moon, and then return. If you’re inside right now, think about the building that surrounds you. Buildings like these did not always exist, but they do today. Many of them are architecturally flawless; a vacation in Spain is more than enough proof of this. On an individual level, many of us can say “I want this job,” and then achieve that goal. If you want to become an award-winning chemist, you can do that. There are chemistry textbooks, laboratories and university professors to guide you to this goal. If you want to be financially successful, then you can invest in your own financial literacy and learn how to trade and play the stock market. Eventually, you’ll develop personal wealth. In many ways, we have control over the trajectory of our lives. It’s just like Will Smith tells his son in The Pursuit of Happiness, “If you want something, go get it. Period.”
If we think that we have full control over our time on this planet, we’re only deceiving ourselves. Several weeks ago, the wife of an incredible man and U of A professor was struck by a car and killed while cycling on Prince Edward Island highway. I happened to do research with this professor during the summer of my first year, and he would speak enthusiastically about his cycling expeditions with his wife. It’s unfathomable that such a tragic accident took place during one of these trips, and the same goes for the shooting in Aurora. Nobody knew that this would happen.
While I might seem to be painting a depressing picture, that’s not my goal. Rather, there are great lessons to take away from this. We have no way of telling what will happen to us today, but we should be comfortable with that. We’re fortunate to be alive in the first place, and we have this wonderful ability to shape our own lives, and the lives of those around us. Looking up at the sky, it’s empowering to think that we are exploring the universe, with its billions of stars and galaxies so vast that we cannot comprehend. At the same time, it’s humbling to know that our lives are not straightforward. Our life paths are unpredictable.
This paradox is sometimes depressing, but I find it much more empowering. Take the “road less travelled by,” as Robert Frost writes, and find peace with the peaks and valleys encountered along the way. You will never know what is to come, but that is what makes life interesting.
Cover photo courtesy of Patrick Nguyen.
Emerson likes to read, run and write. He’s currently reading more Deadspin articles than any particular book.