Monday, October 31, 2011

Deus ex Machina

"We're all puppets, Laurie. I'm just a puppet who can see the strings."

Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen

Names were changed to protect the privacy of the parties involved.

"This is a very severe case of bilateral ventriculomegaly. The atria of the lateral ventricles measure more than 30 milimetres each!" said Dr. Nic. "The thalamus is also absent. I can't say for sure since I am unable to do any 3D scanning with this machine, but I suspect that there is agenesis of the corpus callosum as well."

He was clearly narrating for my benefit rather than for the mother of unborn child he was performing the ultrasound scan on. The woman could neither speak nor understand English, and even if she could, she would still come against the layer of Latin jargon which we medical types use to sound smart and to shield our conversations from lay ears.

"The head is far too big to be delivered vaginally," he went on. "It had to be taken out through a C-sect."

After peering into the Rorschach greys of the monitor to his satisfaction, he hung up the transducer and then went to his computer to compose his report. "There's no way of even knowing how long the baby would live after its birth," he said as he typed. "The prognosis is very bad."

He attempted for a moment to explain to the expectant mother and her mother-in-law who accompanied her about his findings but then gave up before turning to me, asking me for the Malay words for "mental retardation". I supplied them, and he then proceeded to break the bad news to her in his halting, syllabic attempt at our national tongue. It sounded blunt because he had not attained mastery yet over the usual sympathetic inflections. Meanwhile, the woman sitting in front of us was slowly processing the information she just received into tears.

"How do I tell her that the baby might even die in utero?" he asked me next. I took over from there and re-explained everything in the most delicate way I could. But what could I do, really? No matter how soft the words are, the news were still going to crush her like runaway bullet train out of nowhere. Her little babe was more than 30 weeks old, more than three-quarters of the way to the beginning of its new life - and up until that moment, she had been picturing a plump, gurgling, pink-cheeked cherubim in her mind. That picture was shattered in a second. No one expects to give birth to a mistake of nature.

"This is not your fault," I continued in Malay, pulling a few tissue from the dispenser and handing them to her. She eagerly accepted them and buried her face. "It's hard to say at this point what caused this to happen, but the child was probably formed this way from the very beginning." I avoided explaining that it could have been genetic, chromosomal or developmental because these are details she neither need nor understand.

"So, the baby is fated to be this way?" she asked quietly.

"Yes, you can say that," I answered cautiously. Fate to me is just another word for determinism but it probably meant something entirely different to her. Most people ascribed a force of agency to causality; some kind of anthropomorphic decider of destinies that has a Plan all laid out for everyone from the beginning of the universe. God, they call it.

The effect that simple idea had on her was startling. She calmed down visibly. Suddenly, the random, senseless tragedy turned into a scheduled itinerary in her life. I practically saw it clicked into place like a programmed protective subroutine in her brain, and it's uncanny. For a moment, I pierced the illusion and saw what we really are: highly sophisticated biological robots, but robots nonetheless. And we have found a way to short circuit grief.

"It's fate," her mother-in-law said, reinforcing the meme. "This is God's will."

God can mean anything we need. God can mean that there are no accidents. He can mean that all the bad things that ever happened to us are just secret tests of our characters or faith; and that all of it serve some nebulous higher Purpose. He can mean that there's a special place in the hereafter where the woman will reunite with her malformed child who was miraculously made whole and unbroken, along with everyone else she ever loved and lost, while everyone else she dislikes - murderers, paedophiles, rude individuals, or people who simply do not believe in the same beautiful fantasy she does - are summarily excluded from it for eternity. God WILL fix everything in the end, and give us our obligatory happy endings.

"This is God's will," the pregnant woman agreed, drying her eyes. And in them, I saw the invention of God, as He had been invented over and over again since the very first tragedy struck the very first man.

Homo ex machina,
k0k s3n w4i


nicoletta said...

robots who don't realise that they're robots won't come to much harm or distress. as long as the illusion remains intact. (of course I haven't taken into account the spreading of this illusion or proselytisation of religion). I mean, what's the point of truth if truth only points to its own meaninglessness? if there's no God then I guess faith is a sort of biological / psychological coping mechanism against the rawness of biological truth. (the term 'biological' is used rather loosely here. correct me.)

Zzzyun said...

i suppose god is a way of humans to deal with things that they can't explain (or refuse to believe, depending on who you talk to).

it is a short cut way of explaining why bad and good things happen to us without bothering to find out the real reason why.

k0k s3n w4i said...

nicoletta: there are times i wonder if it's right for me to break their comforting illusions. most people's faith are harmless, after all. but then again, having such a huge section of population that buys into the whole magic story is a theocracy waiting to happen. i've seen how easily religious authorities radicalise the moderates into a mob. you ask what's the point of truth if it only points to its own meaningless. i can only give you the answer i gave myself - this is my only life. and i don't want to run the risk of living a lie.

zzzyun: it's a defense mechanism. as heath ledger's joker said: nobody panics when things go "according to plan." even if the plan is horrifying! if, tomorrow, i tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!