Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Cause and Effect

The sound came again: a deep, hoarse, wavering bellow, something like you'd expect to hear from a dying walrus.

I had just gotten up and was groggily checking my email. Because the house windows were closed, the sound was muffled and faint, so it took a few moments for my brain to register what it was.


One of our broodmares, Maggie has a voice that evokes images of elderly elephants and wounded sea-beasts. But why would she be bellowing repeatedly first thing in the morning?


This is a story about cause and effect, how the littlest things can have the most unexpected consequences. You never know what little thing you do---for good or ill--will have a profound effect on someone you've never met, or what insignificant event will change your life forever.

Here's what got me thinking about that:

When I opened the window to listen more clearly to Maggie's whinnies, my hand knocked against a glass ornament that was hanging there. It fell from its hook, tumbled out the window, and shattered on the ground below.

Well, shoot! The decoration wasn't valuable, but I'd liked the cheerful spark of color it had added to my office. A minor disappointment, but nothing to get upset about.

Still wondering about the commotion outside, I put on some shoes and went out to check on Maggie. She was standing alone at the hay feeder, hollering. All the other mares were out of sight, probably swishing flies down among the cedars at the bottom of the big pasture.

When Maggie saw me, she gave one more bellow, and cantered off to find the other horses. Nothing was wrong with her. All I could think of was that she'd fallen asleep near the feeder while all the other horses were still eating, and had been distressed to find that she'd woken up alone.

It was an insignificant event. But it made me stop and think what a quirky little chain of effects it had been. Who would have guessed that a sleeping horse in the pasture could manage to break an ornament upstairs in the house?

The minutiae of the causes and effects that shape our lives fascinate me. You never know at the time what insignificant detail of your day will end up changing the course of your life, even decades later.

For example, if it hadn't been for one photocopied flier on a bulletin board in Portland, Maine, sometime around 1987, I would never have met my husband in Boston in 1993. Here's how it happened:

1. 1987: A flier on a bulletin board announces the formation of a new writer's group. On a whim, I decide to join. Through this group, I meet a man named David who I eventually date for several years.

2. During that time, David and I take a road trip down the east coast to visit some friends of his. The friends take us to a local festival, where I discover the SCA for the first time. I love the idea of a medieval recreation club, so when I get back home, I join the local chapter.

3. 1992: David and I have broken up. At an SCA event, I meet Derek. We begin dating, and eventually I move to Boston to be with him.

4. 1993: Derek and I are not getting along. One particular night towards the end of our relationship, we have an argument. Needing to get out of the house, I go alone to the local SCA dance practice, which I have never been to before.

That night, I met Ken, the man who two years later became my husband. We've been married for twelve years, and still going strong---all because of a flier, a road trip, and an argument. If that flier hadn't been on that bulletin board that day, I can't even imagine how different my life would be right now.

An example of obscure cause and effect came up on the farm recently, too.

Somewhere in California not too long ago, a boss stiffed an employee for a month's pay. I don't know the details. All I know is that the employee is the person I talked about in This is a Test, who wants to buy my mare Bonnie. "Oh I want her, " she told me in a recent email. "I think about her all the time." But now, because of her boss's action, she doesn't have the money right now.

If I had sold Bonnie to this woman a month ago when she first inquired, I would have had the money to buy hay for my herd and pay our neighbor Bob for the alfalfa he gave us on credit. And with that money, Bob would probably have been able to do a few things in the past month that he has not been able to do without it. All the while, somewhere in California, that boss has no idea that his behavior is affecting the lives of farmers in Virginia.

So much of the time, we live our lives feeling alienated in our own little world, never realizing the far-reaching ripples our actions can cause.

I try to be a good person. I'm not an angel, by any means, and I've certainly had occasions when I've been impatient or thoughtless or unkind. But for the most part, I try to treat people---and animals---at least as well as I hope to be treated myself.

Even if I can't always see the effect of my choices, whenever I think about the tiny details that can change a life, I know that it's worth it to make a little extra effort to put some kindness and helpfulness out into the world.


So who would have thought that a sleepy horse in the pasture could break an ornament upstairs in the house and inspire a philosophical blog entry that would be read in [fill in the name of YOUR town here]?

Where will the ripple of cause and effect go next? If even one person who reads this is inspired to go out of his or her way to take a kind action towards another human being, there's no telling how far the results will reach.

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