diamond geezer

 Wednesday, December 16, 2020

I sometimes wonder how many people I've killed.

I should add, not knowingly. I haven't murdered anyone, nor been the cause of anything a court would define as manslaughter. But it is entirely possible, indeed likely, that at some point in my life my actions have ultimately led to someone else meeting a premature end.

We all interact with thousands of people every year, possibly more, or at least in a normal year we do. Some people we merely walk past, others we sit beside, buy from, talk to, work with, live with, even grow old alongside. Our actions are more likely to have an impact on friends and family, but everything we do has ramifications which affect the behaviour of others, and a tiny but finite number of those interactions will end badly for the other person.

I'm mostly thinking accidents. The majority of the population die from chronic disease, so it's unlikely I've contributed to that, but accidents require a particular chain of events to occur before their unfortunate conclusion. Take crossing a road, for example. Perhaps I pressed the button at a set of lights which delayed the traffic and caused one particular vehicle to cross the path of a lorry several minutes later. Or maybe I chose not to press the button which allowed one driver to proceed thirty seconds earlier than they might have done, spreading ripples throughout the rest of their journey which eventually led to an entirely different vehicle running someone over.

The chance of such an event occurring is infinitesimally small, of course, but I have crossed an awful lot of roads during my life. I'm over 20,000 days old so it's perfectly possible that at least one of my button-pushing decisions led to a bad outcome, perhaps in 1984 or 2006 or whenever, I'd never know.

Or perhaps the fatal decision was that time I hopped inside a tube carriage and prevented someone else from boarding, or a day I queued for a burger delaying the person behind me for a minute, or the homeless person I walked past without donating a quid, or the bench I didn't occupy in a park allowing someone else to sit down, or a myriad of otherwise trivial actions. Again I know that virtually all of these had no fatal repercussions whatsoever, but over the course of a half a century at least one of them might have resulted in a premature death.

Just by being on the planet my life has had enormous repercussions. My presence will have affected my own family most of all, which means all of their actions since 1965 have been subtly different too. Then there's everyone I went to school with, for example all the classes which would have proceeded differently if I hadn't been there. My place at university came at the expense of someone I probably never met, potentially affecting life chances and future careers. And as for jobs, well, just imagine how many lives your career has directly and indirectly affected over the years. One or more may well have ended badly.

As a blogger I have an additional source of potential regret, which is that I've inspired all sorts of people to do all sorts of things over the last 18 years. Hopefully almost all of that has been good, but I've often wondered if inspiring someone to go somewhere ever led to their final journey, or indirectly led to someone else's. My unsuspecting manslaughter tally after 8500 posts could conceivably be non-zero.

But this also works in reverse. I might instead have saved a life along the way.

I reckon the most likely candidate here is me selling my car in 1999 and switching to public transport. I was never the world's best driver so was relieved when a change of job allowed me to stop doing it. It's perfectly plausible that this decision has saved more than one life over the last two decades, including my own.

Or it could have been something more mundane. Perhaps that lorry approaching the traffic lights had been heading for an accident but my button push prevented it. Perhaps my tube carriage squeeze caused the unsuccessful passenger to meet someone unexpected two hours later and ultimately start a family. Perhaps one of my schoolmates ended up in a medical career because I decided against doing Biology A Level so left a place for them. Perhaps that post I wrote enticed you out of the house on the day you'd otherwise have had a nasty encounter with a stepladder. These events may sound ridiculously unlikely, but multiply them up and the probability of at least one life being saved is definitely finite.

Yes, I know I shouldn't really worry about any of this. Life is an unrelenting succession of decisions and choices, so any minor ripples I set off aren't ultimately my fault. The sheer interconnectedness of our lives means that millions have influenced the path taken, not just me.

If I did trigger a fatal car accident by pressing a button, that death was directly caused by someone else. It's free will which moves people to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, I'm not responsible. And even if I have indirectly shortened someone's life, indirect shortening isn't a crime. My conscience should be clear.

And yet...

We live at a time when an invisible virus is stalking the land killing tens of thousands. Most of us haven't got it, thankfully, but it's all too easy to assume and some of us are assuming incorrectly.

The virus is mostly spread by people who don't think they've got it but are wrong. Indeed one of the reasons this pandemic is so deadly is that the asymptomatic continue with behaviours that unknowingly favour transmission, simply on the basis that improbable is not the same as impossible. If 100 people are mixing in a public place then one of them is likely to be infected and who's to say it isn't you?

One misplaced cough or a prolonged social encounter could be the trigger for a new infection, and hence a chain of several more. A trip to the pub could kill nobody or hundreds, ultimately, should a single encounter ricochet for weeks through the local population. This message was high in our minds at the start of the pandemic when everyone was busy explaining what the R number was and creating graphics to explain exponential growth. But many people have dropped their guard somewhat since, forgetting that even a small number of individual actions may collectively have very serious consequences.

As Tier 3 descends and Christmas approaches, it probably won't be us that kills people but it might be. Conversely someone's going to end up dying prematurely and it might be directly our fault. What's more we may never realise what we've done, preferring to believe that if we don't see the end result then it didn't happen.

I sometimes wonder how many people I've indirectly killed. Whatever the number, I'm keen to keep it as low as possible.

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