Any child’s death is shocking, even to those of us who never knew the deceased, but hearing about the fate of the two boys in Canada killed by a python left me gobsmacked. But… how… what? Half-formed questions spun around my reeling mind. A bizarre, one in a billion concurrence of events had abruptly ended their lives – they were just so unlucky.
If someone dies in a road accident, they have been unlucky too: but everyone knows that, statistically, there is a chance of being involved in an accident every time we get into a vehicle. If you put your children on a minibus, you know there are risks, but also know that you have done your best to minimise them (you are, presumably, using the transport of trusted provider who will, for their part, have checked the vehicle is roadworthy). But how do you guard against the risk that your sons will be strangled as they sleep in a friend’s room by a python kept in an enclosure a floor below?
These past days I’ve been reading some of the thoughts of Epictetus, the Greek philosopher active around the 1st century BC. For him, an external event which we can do nothing about – such as our own or someone else’s death – is neither a good nor an evil matter. Only our reactions determine whether events are good or evil.
If an event is outside our control, we should try to accept it with equanimity. This rational way of thinking about the world is the key to the unperturbed state of mind, the ideal of anyone wishing to live a happy life. Welcome to the world of Stoicism.
But when it’s so hard to make sense of a truly tragic outcome, when it’s something that could so easily not have happened, how can you begin to reconcile yourself to your misfortune? Unless, maybe, you are able to attain a Buddha-like detachment from the world, there are surely limits to the consolations of philosophy.