• S.E. Burr

Unintended Consequences and Not Being Able to Reach Someone

I wrote before about the serious car accident I was in recently. I was driving through that intersection at that time that day because I was trying to help someone. Since the accident, I've been struggling to adapt to the terrifying truth that I learned in that intersection: The impact I have on the world and on the people I love can be the opposite of what I intend. I can hurt who I mean to help. I can kill who I mean to save.

I wish I could tell you that there's something special about you that keeps you safe from the havoc of unintended consequences. I wish I could tell you that there's one thing, or a short list of things, that you can do to ensure that your life and your work, whatever it is, will turn out the way you want. I can't tell you that. It simply isn't so.

But lately I've found some silver linings that have helped me keep going. I'll share two of them with you.

The first is that the unintended consequences of a person's actions can be positive just like they can be negative. Fritz Haber was a German patriot and Jew who by accident invented the nitrogen fertilizer that saved and enabled billions of lives, including yours and mine, while he was trying to invent new ways to make explosives to kill people in World War I. (I'll put a video about him at the bottom of this post. His life is a tale of unintended consequences as fascinating as it is harrowing.)

I have been grateful for the unintended impact my writing has sometimes had on people. Often, I've written things with a particular person in mind as the reader. Sometimes it's just been, "I hope this makes So and So smile," but a lot of the time it's been, "I hope this helps this person. I think this is what they need to hear."

It so rarely works. I so rarely reach the person, whoever it is, that I'm trying to reach. I don't see people as clearly as I wish I did. I don't know what they need. Even this blog post is an example of that. I know what I want to say and I know who I'm trying to say it to. I know that they're struggling with something and I want to help them, but I don't know how. I think they'll read this post, but I don't know that they'll hear what I'm trying to say and even if they do, I don't know if it'll matter to them. I don't know what they need.

The beautiful thing about putting words out into the world, which don't reach the person they're intended for, is that they very often reach someone else. Years ago I wrote an early version of my story, "The Everything Puzzle," for someone, not the person I'm trying to speak to now. I was trying to say a specific thing to them, not the same thing that I hope the story says now, but something close to that. I gave it to them, and after they read it, they looked at me and said, "That makes no sense. I don't get it." I was so disappointed.

But it's OK. It's wonderful even. Maybe I needed to tell that story more than they needed to hear it. Since then, I've shared the story with others who have been touched by it, and it led to a Kickstarter campaign where together people pledged $1,000 to turn it into a real picture book, giving a wonderful, autistic young man the opportunity to be paid for his art work and to show all the people who've doubted him how talented he is. That's the sort of unintended consequence I'm grateful for.

The second silver lining I want to tell you about is that I think I'm starting to understand the value of time. This moment, this word, right now, is the only one we're guaranteed. Things can change in an instant. Right now is the only time I have to impact the world, to love, to communicate, to help, to do the things that someday will be all I was able to leave behind. In the past, when I've gone through hard times I've tried to keep my head down and get through them. I've tried to keep my mind off of the things that were bothering me by distracting myself with TV and time-wasters. Now I know that wasting even the bad times is a tragedy because this is the only time I have.

Since the accident, I've tried to take care in everything I do, but I know that I can't possibly be careful enough. If I focus too much on one hazard, I miss another. And knowing how valuable time is, I can't allow fear of the inevitable unintended consequences of my actions to paralyze me into inactivity. There's a quote I love from the movie, Secondhand Lions, which is, "Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most," and so to keep me inspired, to help me to keep going, I've chosen to continue to believe in something despite the evidence I've seen lately to the contrary, and that's this: "If you have to make a mistake, and let's face it, you do, then it's best to err on the side of kindness. It is always better to be too kind than too cruel." I'm not trying to present myself as some kind of Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa. If you know me, you know how thoughtless and rude I can be. But my belief about kindness, true or not, gives me hope and helps me to keep going. Maybe the thing that keeps you going is something else. Whatever it is, I hope you find it. It's a rough world out there and we all need something to hold on to.

Video about Fritz Haber:

The Everything Puzzle

Abbey loves puzzles. She loves small puzzles with big pieces, like her famous-physicist-with-crazy-hair puzzle; giant puzzles with giant pieces, like her Eiffel-Tower-too-tall-for-the-table puzzle; little puzzles with little pieces, like her curious-kittens-caught-in-yarn puzzle; and even enormous puzzles with tiny pieces, like The Everything Puzzle. Its itty-bitty pieces come in every shape Abbey can imagine and every color she knows the name for, along with a few she doesn’t. It’s a really tough puzzle, and that’s okay because Abbey’s a really tough girl.

When Abbey gets a new puzzle, all the pieces are in a cardboard box, and the box is wrapped in plastic to keep them in. After she opens the box, the pieces are free to go exploring, and then she finds them on the colorful-curlicues-kitchen floor, in the bright-red-circus-animals toy chest, and under the just-a-little-raggedy couch cushions.

The Everything Puzzle is old and has lost its box. The puzzle pieces are EVERYWHERE.

Abbey finds them at school when her teacher teaches about math and reading, and about science and art. She finds them in the car when Dad answers her questions about why moms don’t have beards, and dogs don’t like lettuce, and it’s OK when people disagree. She finds them in bed when Mom reads her bedtime stories like “The Little Red Hen,” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and “Little Bunny Foo Foo.”

One day, Abbey finds a piece of The Everything Puzzle that doesn’t seem to fit. It doesn’t connect with any of the old pieces, not the orange-Swiss-cheese-moon shaped piece, or the blue-giraffe-with-two-necks shaped piece, or the pink-half-a-pair-of-galoshes piece.

But that’s okay; she sets the new piece on the paint-spotted-glitter-speckled craft table beside the others. As Abbey grows, she’ll find more pieces--a shamrock green piece from a special trip, a lacey white piece from a special day, and a black and blue piece from a decision that will seem impossible until she makes it. Someday she’ll see how all the pieces fit together. She’ll see the big picture that the pieces make, and find that it’s more enormous and beautiful than she ever imagined.

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