Eisenbud's Odyssey: The third law
Whether you are a student of science or theology, Isaac Newton’s third law of motion and the Bible are both instructive in understanding and determining the consequences of our actions in life.
Isaac Newton Photo: Wikimedia Commons
“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”
– Isaac Newton
I was never a good student in physics, or Hebrew school, for that matter.
In fact, I still vividly remember the stress and indignation of failing physics in high school, which forced me to quit a reasonably-paid summer job to retake the course, at which point I miraculously eked out a C-, after groveling to my teacher.
As far as Hebrew school was concerned, I demonstrated the attention span of a petulant gnat, and turned truancy into an art form that would have made Ferris Bueller proud.
Indeed, I was to intellectual growth in both areas what a kazoo is to an orchestra.
However, despite my collective ineptitude and apathy in understanding the majority of either subject matter, two concepts made perfect sense to me, and served as epiphanies far beyond the limited confines of both classrooms.
They were Isaac Newton’s third law of motion, which states: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” and the Bible passage, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
This simple logic transformed my thinking in terms of my actions, and how they affect me and those I encounter.
Most significantly, for the first time in my life, it put into quantifiable terms how my interactions would define me, and the world around me – for better or for worse.
SINCE THEN, I have become acutely aware of the “third law’s” far-reaching applications – and implications – knowing that every encounter and decision I make has proportionate consequences, in virtually every respect.
To be sure, I found that each iota of energy I put out into the world came back to me, one way or another, like a form of “instant karma,” with startlingly consistent, and occasionally unforgiving, results.
It was like clockwork that went well beyond the physical realm, venturing into territories I had never considered related.
On an interpersonal level, if I had an argument with a family member, close friend, girlfriend – or even some random schmo who cut me off at the checkout counter – the severity of my reaction invariably determined the outcome of the conflict, and my quality of life.
Therefore, instead of making angry or hurtful comments – which may have felt good and justifiable at the time – I learned to temper my responses, which in turn disarmed the person in question, thus defusing a potentially explosive situation.
On a physical level, as an “emotional eater” with an epic sweet tooth, as I got older and my metabolism slowed, I found that indulging in sweets to assuage stress or disappointments (as had been my habit for many years), resulted in depression and considerable weight gain – even if such indulgences felt incredibly good at the time.
So, instead of trading a fleeting moment of bliss for an extended period of self-loathing, I disciplined myself to utilize exercise instead of sugar to deal with stress, which generated a far healthier outcome physically and emotionally by lowering my blood pressure, and generally preventing me from becoming a 300-pound basket case.
Professionally, I found that it was impractical and futile to bemoan my existence at any given job that I hated, as such an expenditure of energy only generated exponentially more misery.
So, instead, I would spend as much constructive time as possible researching alternatives and actively pursuing them, which while far more difficult than complaining, invariably led to new and better opportunities, and negated my sense of anger and helplessness.
Despite its simplicity, I learned that if this law is respected, complex problems could be solved.
OF COURSE, in hindsight, all this seems obvious. But what about those among us who still don’t get it? Those who carry themselves with seeming impunity to this law, or without a hint of self-awareness of their damaging actions?
Are they really getting away with anything?
Arguably, there are far more people out there who fit this description than one might think.
I have watched in disbelief countless times as men and women chronically behaved destructively, yet appeared utterly incredulous when their worlds fell apart, in small and large ways.
The most powerful example of this in my life came when I was a criminal courts reporter for a daily newspaper in the US, and I covered multiple murder trials.
Perhaps more than any other forum, a trial, as Franz Kafka painstakingly pointed out, is the greatest example of judgment, and I watched with morbid fascination as those who violated the greatest commandment of all sat in deserved judgment by their peers, sometimes for months at a time.
I frequently found an undeniable arrogance among the convicted killers that I closely observed – that they all thought they’d get away with it. That the law somehow didn’t apply to them.
The second most common characteristic among them was that when they were held to account for their evil deeds, many of them became indignant with rage, egregiously blind to the golden rule.
It was the ultimate hypocrisy, and always reminded me why some men must be locked up.
ON A biblical scale, numerous tragic and transcendental examples of this principle of reciprocity can be found. As Job famously concluded: “Those who plow evil and those who sow trouble, reap it.”
Indeed, from Cain and Abel, to a sociopathic Pharaoh, there is no shortage of stories in the Bible to reinforce this logic.
For modern manifestations of the third law, one need to look no farther than a local newspaper or news channel to read and see countless salacious examples, in real time, no less. They are usually the headlines and lead stories.
One disturbing recent story that troubled me more than many other competing tragedies involved convicted pedophile and former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
He drew international headlines and derailed the college’s legendary football program when he was arrested and subsequently convicted of sexually assaulting a number of boys in the locker room’s showers.
Perhaps most disturbing was that Sandusky showed no remorse before or after being sentenced to at least 30 years in prison.
Instead, he claimed that it was he who was being victimized.
This is clearly a man who is either mad or profoundly lacking in sensitivity and self-awareness – but tragically, he is far from alone.
WHETHER YOU view this phenomenon through the spectrum of science or theology is wholly inconsequential, as its outcome is inevitable. The question is not one regarding the law’s authenticity, but rather its applicability and timing.
In the words of Maimonides: “One should see the world and see himself as a scale with equal balance of good and evil. When he does one good deed the scale is tipped to the good; he and the world are saved. When he does one evil deed the scale is tipped to the bad; he and the world are destroyed.”
Ultimately, the “third law” teaches us sensitivity and accountability in an otherwise insensitive and chaotic world, as well as to respect the fragility of life, including our own. And there’s no getting around it.
Indeed, in the end, this law is as transferable as it is immutable.
Even when someone thinks they got away with murder.