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Friday, October 31, 2008

Chance Encounter After Game Shines a Different Light on Life

Does life consist of random events or is there some deeper meaning behind what seem to be chance encounters and situations? That may seem like a bizarre way to open a post on a basketball blog but, believe it or not, I think about a lot more than basketball--and I actually spend more time thinking about stuff like that than I do about hoops, which is saying something considering that I regularly produce 2000+ word articles about basketball (a normal person would probably say that I overanalyze everything, including hoops, but I'm not normal so that critique does not really make sense to me even though I can understand why someone else would have that perspective).

The reason that I posed the above question here is that on my way home from Cleveland's 96-79 victory over Charlotte I stopped at a rest area and met a veteran named Chris Wood; he is retired from active duty and works third shift as an attendant at the rest area. I don't know why he started talking to me in the middle of the night/morning and I'm not sure why I stayed to listen--but I did stay and listen as he told me about serving our country during the War on Drugs in Colombia and taking a bullet that went through his leg and into his back. He had to have fusion surgery in his back and although he is fully ambulatory now he is still dealing with the physical and psychological effects not just of his injury but of everything he experienced during his service. More importantly, three of his kids have taken ill with various problems that he attributes to the effects of Gulf War Syndrome; after recovering from his injury, he served in Operation Desert Storm and part of his duties involved handling canisters captured from the Iraqis--Wood does not know what was in those canisters but he is just one of thousands of veterans who have either become ill and/or had family members become ill after serving in Iraq. I am not an epidemiologist, so I have no way of knowing whether or not Gulf War Syndrome caused his children's illnesses but his and their suffering is very real regardless of what the cause is.

Before I spoke to Wood, my thoughts were focused squarely on LeBron James' "problem": he does not make a high enough percentage of his free throws.

Chris Wood's problems relate to life, death and the health of his children.

Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it? Is James' "problem" more significant because millions of people watch him on TV? If an alien flew here from another planet and observed Earth without contaminating his mind with our cultural constructs about what and who is important, would he be able to distinguish one person's "value" from another's? Would he come to the same conclusions that our society has regarding that question?

Wood seemed to need someone to listen to him and perhaps at that moment I needed to listen to someone. Many other people walked in and out of the rest area during that time without paying the slightest attention to either of us. I wonder if they thought that he and I were longtime friends instead of strangers who had just met? I wonder if they thought anything at all other than about whatever had been on their minds as they pulled into the rest area? Sometimes I feel like the more I learn and experience the less I understand--or the less things makes sense. What if I had arrived at the rest area five minutes earlier or five minutes later and never crossed paths with Wood? What if I had never stopped there at all? Does this interaction have a deeper meaning or is the significance that my mind attaches to these events simply the brain's way of attempting to explain something that is purely random? Optical illusions can occur when the mind tries to create order or "fill in the blanks" when the eyes convey information that does not make sense; is "meaning" a cognitive illusion that the mind constructs to avoid facing what would otherwise seem to be a random and at times cruel reality? To put things less abstractly--What is the meaning and purpose of Wood's suffering and the suffering of his children? What is the meaning and purpose of Wood telling me his story at the time and place that he did?

Just as Wood felt a need to share his story with me, I felt a need to share my reaction to his story. Maybe all of this seems to have nothing to do with basketball but it was such a powerful experience for me to have my mind and my emotions redirected so quickly from thinking about the Cavs game to thinking about everything that he has gone through and is still going through. This impacted me in a way that I don't quite understand but it will always be a part of my memory of this night--and now that I have shared Wood's story with you it will always be a part of your memory of this night as well.

After talking with Wood--really, I did more listening than talking--I told him that I hope that everything works out for him and his family. He confidently replied that he believes that it will. I spoke with him long enough to realize that he would not want anyone's pity but perhaps before you go to sleep tonight you might say a prayer not only for Chris Wood and his children but also for all of the servicemen and servicewomen who sacrifice so much so that we can have the freedom to concern ourselves with James' free throw percentage and all of the other things that seem so important to us most of the time but fade to insignificance in the face of real problems and real tragedies.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:07 PM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Saturday, November 01, 2008 3:34:00 AM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

It might me easy to laugh at this last post, but I think your willingness to follow your thoughts to undiscovered territory is actually what makes you an effective basketball analyst.

By just listening to this stranger, and taking in the details of his life and troubles, you have shown a desire to learn and an exhibited an openess that some people either do not possess or do choose to display.

These traits led you to write and share about this man, so I don't really find any incongruity with writing about this on a basketball blog.

The fact that you were moved by this encounter just shows that you're a human being, and an open one at that. This has served you in finding the truth, whether it's about basketball or broader issues.

Keep up the good work!

By the way - Dwyane Wade is playing very well, as expected. Get ready for the public awareness of this to emerge, even though us basketball die-hards have known he's been back since the Olympics.

 
At Saturday, November 01, 2008 6:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

FreeCashFlow:

My philosophy is to follow my instincts and my instincts told me to listen and then to write about what I heard and how it made me feel. The whole issue of randomness has really been on my mind a lot recently and this situation just brought those thoughts even more to the forefront.

As for Wade, he showed in the Olympics that he has that extra bounce back. The only real question now is whether or not he can stay healthy while playing this way for 35-40 mpg over an 82 game season. I am skeptical that he can because even though his body looks so powerful he has a history of getting hurt.

 
At Saturday, November 01, 2008 1:40:00 PM, Blogger Kareem said...

David Friedman,

Have you ever seen Hoop Dreams? There's an afterward to the movie, which follows the lives of the two subjects for several years. Regardless of their individual successes, both faced quite a bit of sorrow in their lives. Both had single mother homes; one lived in extreme poverty; one had a child by the age of seventeen (not that that's particularly tragic); and both had immediate family members murdered: one's father and the other's brother.

I bet if you asked many of the basketball players from the ghetto where they came from, what they remember from their pre-college or pre-NBA days, it would be overwhelmingly sad and tragic. I realize that these players are symbols of 'success', but they're not entirely divorced from that place, that history. I don't think that this story is particularly 'random'. I think our country, in general, has much sadness when you look past the middle class. When I was working for a community organization in Oakland, pretty much everyone living there was affected in an immediate way. I know parts of Oakland might be an exception, but the same is true in Santa Cruz (the liberal bastion) when I was doing the same work. Maybe you should keep your ears wider open.

 
At Sunday, November 02, 2008 3:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kareem:

With all due respect, my ears (and eyes) are wide open already. I think that you misunderstood my point. I did not in any way mean to suggest that NBA players are immune from suffering either before or after they become rich and famous.

Also, I did not mean that Chris Wood's story is random or isolated but rather that the last thing I expected on the way home from a basketball game was to listen to such an intensely personal story. That is what strikes me as random. Did this experience happen for some grand reason or purpose or was my encounter with him purely by chance? As I said, this fits in with a larger question of similar nature that I have been grappling with for a while, so this experience just brought my larger question into sharper focus.

I am certainly keenly aware not only of the large amount of suffering in our country but also the large amount of suffering around the world. I saw a report that said that a billion people--one sixth of the world's population--lives on a dollar a day. It is really hard to explain or justify why some people have been blessed with so much good fortune--literally and figuratively--while others are born into dire situations from which they have virtually no way to realistically escape. Basically, this is the question of theodicy or, more colloquially, "the problem of evil": if God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving then why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?

That question is a lot bigger than a basketball blog (obviously) and before I open up a whole can of worms here let me make it perfectly clear that I realize that virtually every religion and belief system around the world addresses this question in some fashion but that does not mean that those answers are completely satisfactory. I think that even the world's greatest religious leaders from all faiths would agree that this is a particularly thorny, difficult and painful question.

With so much suffering in the world, it is important to express gratitude to people who risk everything to try to help others. I have always thought that one of the most powerful images from the 9/11 attacks is that while ordinary citizens fled the burning towers the brave firefighters and rescue personnel ran into those buildings to try to save lives. What kind of person runs into a burning building? That is not natural, in the best sense of the word, and it shows the human potential to do good and to be brave.

That is why I concluded by saying that we Americans should all be thankful for the service rendered by those who have sacrificed so much to preserve our freedom and quality of life.

 
At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 1:30:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Interesting post, David.

It is very easy for all of us to slip into a bubble where we forget about how serious things really are in this world. Thankfully, some people react in a thoughtful manner when their bubble is momentarily burst. Others react in a much more hostile way. So much so, in fact, that it has become unacceptable in mainstream discourse to express certain thoughts.

Men like Mr. Wood who served our country should be honored. It's sad that few people appreciate what he and others have sacrificed for us all. At the same time, I find it somewhat sad that few Americans seem to care about the loss of innocent lives of non-Americans. The unwillingness (or perhaps inability) to put ourselves in the shoes of others is a very serious problem. Notice how in the current presidential campaigns all the talk is about the middle class. No one dares to mention people suffering from poverty. The poor are allegedly horrible people who made bad decisions, never try to work, and have no discipline in their lifestyles. But when things get so bad that middle class can't afford to be as wasteful as usual on luxuries, we care. Somehow, trying to understand the point of view of foreigners or poor Americans (and many others) has been deemed un-American.

As for whether everything happens for a reason, I tend to believe more in randomness. The randomness assures a substantial yet small number of chance encounters. They are substantial enough to provide needed interruptions in the monotony of daily life (and reality checks), yet infrequent enough that they may seem to have a higher importance. I don't know how many people you will meet matching Mr. Wood's profile, but you probably have a very regular supply of chance encounters that leave you thinking.

 
At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 3:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

It's interesting that you mention the suffering of poor people and non-Americans. I asked Mr. Wood if he knew what happened to the person who shot him in Colombia. He did; that person was killed and Mr. Wood was shown a picture of him. The person who shot Mr. Wood was very young--maybe a teenager or in his early 20s--and Mr. Wood told me he really wished that he had not seen the picture because it did not make him feel any better. I can't honestly say that I would have the same reaction that Mr. Wood did in reference to someone who shot me but Mr. Wood told me if I had seen that photo I would have had the same reaction precisely because I am an American and I was raised in a society that places a value on human life. He said that in a lot of the places where he was stationed the societies place very little value on human life and people who are little more than kids are sent out to kill and be killed. That reminds me of how during the Iran-Iraq war the Iranians sent thousands of their own teenagers to run through mine fields to clear the way for the Iranian army.

 
At Wednesday, November 12, 2008 2:41:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

David, you are absolutely right that most other societies place far less value on human life than we do in America. I did not mean to suggest otherwise with my comment. I believe strongly that we can be constructively critical of our country and still love it and hold it in high regard. In my opinion, noting that things are much worse almost everywhere else is not reason for us not to try to improve.

I was more trying to get at how (especially since 9/11) there have been many people out there spreading fear, paranoia, and disregard and hatred of anyone who is "not like us" (almost always meaning foreigners, and often also including Americans from minority and immigrant backgrounds...as you may have heard, some have even tried to target entire regions of this nation as being somehow un-American).

The following provides a good example of what I am talking about: in the days leading up to the election, Barack Obama was criticized for having made the following statement:

"We've got to get the job done there," he said of Afghanistan. "And that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous problems there."

The intention of the quote was completely distorted by his political opponents. The concern for the lives of innocent Afghanis and the call for a more careful approach was twisted into a supposedly "un-American", "un-patriotic" accusation that our troops are murderers. When such little room for constructive criticism is allowed, few people will stick their neck out and speak up against anything wrong that is happening to people who aren't Americans.

 
At Wednesday, November 12, 2008 6:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Unfortunately, it is the nature of political campaigns that both sides intentionally distort what the other side says in order to try to sway undecided voters. Basically, 40% of the country is Democrat, 40% of the country is Republican and the elections are decided by whoever can win favor with the majority of the remaining 20%. Obama's near landslide Electoral College victory consisted of a solid--but not landslide--52%-46% edge in the popular vote, meaning that nearly half of the country did not vote for him. It would be preferable if both sides would stick to talking about what they plan to do as opposed to attacking the other side but that is simply not the way that politics is conducted.

As for your specific example, it is certainly important that America not intentionally target civilians or place civilians at undue risk but by the same token it is also important to remember that the reason American troops are in Afghanistan in the first place is that a terrorist organization given shelter and support by that country's government made an unprovoked attack on our soil that killed nearly 3000 innocent American civilians. The primary task of the American government as it deploys our military in a war zone is to defend American civilians first and then other civilians. As I recall, before sending troops to Afghanistan, President Bush said to the Afghan government that it must deliver bin Laden et. al to justice or else justice will be delivered to bin Laden (the fact that America has not been able to successfully locate bin Laden is an entirely different issue pertaining to intelligence, strategy and tactics). If the Afghan government was concerned about the safety of its civilians then it should not have sheltered al Qaeda in the first place and after 9/11 it should have promptly turned bin Laden over to the U.S. It is the decisions of the Afghani government that have placed the lives of Afghani civilians in peril. Of course, that is no excuse for the U.S. to recklessly endanger civilians and I'm sure that Republicans and Democrats alike would be opposed to any action that would do that. The reality of a war zone is that "friendly fire" is a danger to our own troops and most if not all instance of Afghani casualties from U.S. bombings are likely the result of accidents and not deliberate.

Also, I would be interested to know if the people who are very concerned about U.S. actions vis a vis Afghani citizens were equally concerned when the Taliban herded Afghani citizens into athletic stadiums and killed them or when the Taliban systematically destroyed holy sites/monuments of other religions. It is much easier to take seriously human rights concerns that are expressed by those who are consistent in their complaints as opposed to those who only focus on human rights concerns that they believe reflect badly on certain countries. The truth is that if America succeeds in Afghanistan then the country will become a democracy where life is better for all citizens, much like South Korea today--and if America fails in Afghanistan then the country will follow in the footsteps of North Korea or Vietnam, experiencing a lot of suffering and deprivation. America did not create the mess that exists in Afghanistan and there is no bloodless way to fix the problems that exist there now.

 
At Wednesday, November 12, 2008 2:01:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I never at any point defended the actions of the Taliban. If I must make a disclaimer before any kind of discussion like this, I'd like to point out that I find the level of religious intolerance and lack of women's rights (and human rights in general) in many Islamic countries despicable.

As I said before, just because we are better in many ways than most others in the world, that does not mean that we should cease all constructive criticism. It is not inconsistent for someone to believe, as Obama does (and as I do), that we certainly need to be in Afghanistan and stabilize the situation there and ensure our own safety and that at the same time we should strive to be as careful as possible.

Also, it is possible for someone to be sincerely concerned about human rights and unsure of the best way to deal with the problem. US intervention in other nations is a very complex thing. Afghanistan is a more clear-cut example because, as you pointed out, their government sheltered a terrorist organization which attacked us. But what about Iraq? On the one hand, they had no connection with 9/11, no secret WMDs, and there has been a lot of bloodshed since 2003. On the other hand, it's certainly a good thing that Saddam Hussein is gone (and the death toll of innocent Iraqis since 2003 may very well have been higher if we never invaded Iraq and Hussein was in power this whole time). Some of the considerations should be America's own capacity (in terms of money, manpower, and morale) to intervene in a situation, as well as whether we have a solid exit strategy which is going to stabilize the region. I will never be convinced that it is a bad thing for us to be self-critical. We have made some slip-ups of our own over the years (like supporting certain dictators), and many people have been critical of the way we handled the situation in Afghanistan in the 1980s. That doesn't mean that others are not at fault.

Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of distorting the stances of the opposing side. But Republicans have a far worse record. For 40 years, they have been winning elections by assassinating the character of their opponents, and spreading fear, hatred, and bigotry.

 
At Wednesday, November 12, 2008 5:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I agree with your basic point that just because the U.S. is doing better than most if not all countries in this regard that does not absolve the U.S. from trying to do even better, if possible. Constructive criticism and honest, open minded discussion are certainly important. Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel show in their USA TODAY column that it is possible to be from opposite sides of the political spectrum and still engage in polite dialogue.

I also agree that it is possible to be sincerely concerned about human rights and at the same time not sure what the best solution is in various situations. What I object to is people who may not have even known where Afghanistan is before the U.S. got involved but because they have an anti-American agenda they suddenly are very concerned about Afghan human rights issues. There have been Afghan human rights issues for three decades; these problems did not begin when the U.S. sent the military there looking for bin Laden. I have no problem with anyone questioning U.S. strategy/tactics but it would be wrong to suggest that everything was great before until the U.S. became involved.

As you indicated, it is possible to question U.S. policy regarding Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries dating back for many years. That said, the U.S. does not have a policy of innocently targeting civilians.

As for Iraq's WMD, an interesting perspective on this issue is offered by Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former Romanian spy chief who defected. He worked on a program in Libya called "sarindar"--that is a Romanian word meaning "emergency exit" and it was the codename for various Soviet methods of quickly concealing WMDs. It is easy to do a google search of Pacepa and sarindar and read what he said about this subject, so all I will quote here is the conclusion of a 2003 article that Pacepa wrote:

The U.S. military in fact, has already found the only thing that would have been allowed to survive under the classic Soviet "Sarindar" plan to liquidate weapons arsenals in the event of defeat in war--the technological documents showing how to reproduce weapons stocks in just a few weeks.

 
At Sunday, December 28, 2008 9:48:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

David,

I just read Herman Hesse's Siddartha this holiday break, and this passage immediately made me think of this post of yours.

"“When someone seeks, it can easily happen that his eyes only see the thing he is seeking and that he is incapable of finding anything, incapable of taking anything in, because he is always only thinking about what he is seeking, because he has an object, a goal, because he is possessed by this goal. Seeking means having a goal, but finding means being free, open, having no goal. Perhaps you, venerable one, are indeed a seeker, for in striving after your goal, there is much you fail to see that is right before your eyes.”"

By being free and open, you were able to experience this "chance encounter".

 
At Monday, December 29, 2008 8:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

FreeCashFlow:

That is a good explanation.

 

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