I was read this passage (again, too good not to share) in the book Freedom Evolves, by Daniel Dennett, talking about how the absent mindedness of a father led to the death of his daughter. I had once thought quite a bit about the issue discussed here, and always came to the sort of thinking Dennett writes about here: that I can never know what exactly it is that I would or would not do, and therefore with any judgement call I have to make, I always take it with a scoop or two of salt.
I read in the newspaper recently about a young father who forgot to drop off his infant daughter at the day-care center on his way to work. She spent the day locked in his car in a hot parking lot, and in the evening on his way home when he stopped her at the day-care center to pick her up, he was toold, “You didn’t drop her off today.” He rushed out to his car to find her stilled strapped into her little car seat in the back, dead. If you can bear it, put yourself in this man’s shoes. When I do, I shudder; my heart aches at the thought of the unspeakable shame, the self-loathing, the regret beyond regret that this man must now be suffering. And as one who is notoriously absentminded, who readily gets lost in his own thoughts, I find it even more unsettling to ask myself: Could I ever do anything like that? Could I be that negligent with the lif of a child in my care? I replay the scene with many variations, imagining distractions — a fire engine racing by just as I am about to turn off to the day-care center, something on the radio reminding me of a problem I have to solve that day, and later, in the parking lot, a friend asking me for help as I get out of my car, or perhaps I drop some papers on the ground and have to pick them up. Could a series of such distractors pile up and bury my overriding project of getting my daughter safely to day care? Could I be so unlucky as to blunder into a situation where events conspired to bring out the very worst in me, exposing my weakness, and leading me down this despicable path? I am so thankful that nothing like this has yet confronted me, because I do not know that there are no circumstances in which I could do that this man did. Such things happen all the time. I know nothing more about this young father. It is conceivable that he is a callous and irresponsible human being, a villain who deserves to be despised by us all. But it is also conceivable that he’s basically a good person, a victim of cosmic bad luck. And, of course, the better person he is, the greater his remorse must now be. He must wonder if there is any honorable way to go on living. “I’m the guy who forgot his baby daughter and let her bake to death in his locked car. That’s who I am.”