Sunday, November 8, 2009

Six Degrees of Separation

The Key
Jackson Pollock
1946

The theory of Six Degrees of Separation is one that has always amazed me. It refers to the idea that, if a person is one step away from each person they know, and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people they know, then everyone is at most six steps away from every other person on Earth. I work with someone who is married to a Goddaughter of Queen Elizabeth, therefore I am two degrees of separation away from the Queen. When I was in grade eight, a new student from another city enrolled in our school. Our teacher asked me if I would mind sharing my locker with the new student. She and I became friends, and I invited her home for dinner one night. As my mother and my new friend stood chatting in the kitchen, they discovered that my new friend was closely related to us through a mutual relative in South Africa. Two degrees of separation -- it's a small world.

The following story is one that I have posted about previously, but I was thinking about the story today, and I thought I would post it again for those of you who had not read it. It is a true story.

I grew up in a small town on the edge of a forest and my friend Helen* lived on the other side of the creek from our house. We spent all our time at each other’s houses, playing hopscotch, skipping, swimming, playing with dolls and doing all the other things girls do. We went through elementary school together and we ate lunch together every day. We would often trade lunches, and I always looked forward to the days when Helen’s mother made her chocolate bar and banana sandwiches. My mother never made me chocolate bar and banana sandwiches, and I thought they were wonderful.

Helen and I grew apart as we got into high school and we found we had different interests. Helen was very athletic and involved in girl’s basketball, where I was more involved with the school choir and painting. We went our separate ways and didn’t see each other again after graduation. Helen became a teacher and moved to another city, and I got married. After my husband died, it was necessary for me to go back to work, so I became a legal assistant with a large law firm. I worked for a senior partner and his junior assistant, a young articling student named Paul*.

Paul was a very sweet young man and everyone liked him. He was dark, attractive and sort of self-effacing, but he was a very promising articling student. However, he had made one serious mistake in his personal life, which required a formal hearing before he could become a lawyer. When the hearing concluded, it was agreed that Paul could become a lawyer and practice law, but on the condition that he move to a law firm in another city.

In the meantime, Helen had been diagnosed with a condition that required surgery. The doctor who performed the surgery botched it, leaving Helen in chronic pain. Helen sued the doctor but she lost the law suit. By a twist of coincidence, the law firm representing the doctor was the same law firm where Paul now practiced law.

Helen was frustrated with the outcome of her case, and after exhausting all appeals, she set out on a mission to take justice into her own hands. She went to the law firm that had represented the doctor, with the intent to shoot the lawyer, and she accidentally shot Paul instead and killed him. She was apprehended while she was on her way to shoot the doctor who had botched her operation. After a lengthy trial, Helen was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Two people whom I had known quite closely at different times in my life, had their lives intersect with each other in a way that would turn out to be devastating for them both. At the time this happened, I had not yet heard of the theory of Six Degrees of Separation. Neither Helen nor Paul knew that I was a common factor in each of their lives. I wonder how often this happens every day as we weave to and fro throughout each other's lives.

33 comments:

Firefly said...

It is amazing how small this world is

A human kind of human said...

What an amazing story... and I believe there are even more amazing stories within this story. We never know what unexpected detours life will take and where and how we will end up.

introspection said...

What a very strong story Jo. As they say 'Truth is srtanger than fiction...!' This is stranger than any fiction I came across in my whole life. One of your acquaintance Paul is no more, and is Helen serving her life sentence even now, or some unknown 6 degrees twist there too ?

DUTA said...

Doctors and lawyers can easily destroy lives. Each doctor/lawyer is said to have "his own cemetery of burried clients".

nomore said...

Probably once i had been read it about the Dramatical, amazing story.......a whim of fate....nice posts..

Russell said...

I know a man who used to be an Iowa lawmaker and he knows the man who was our former Governor (now Secretary of Agriculture). The former Governor is acquainted with President Obama.

However, my guess is that if I requested a visit with President Obama, the former Governor would not push too hard for that to happen since he does not know me.

The flaw in the logic behind the six degrees of separation is that it assumes there is an equal degree of influence from one end of the chain to the other - and that is not the case.

However, it is an interesting idea and, in principle, quite fascinating!

KathyB. said...

I am constantly amazed at how our lives intersect on so many levels with people in our past, in our friends' and family's past...and how after awhile, even borders and countries offer no wall of defense on the interaction all of humanity has with one another.Here you have it in a nutshell, Jo!

kenju said...

Very interesting post, and I have no doubt that it happens much more often than we are aware of.

The Bug said...

Wow - I think this could be a "made for tv" movie - the story as told by the common denominator... Fascinating!

Blue Ridge Mountains said...

I am an elderly woman and have spent quite a bit of time traveling out in the world. I can tell you many times I have chatted up someone only to find we have a friend or a friend of a friend in common.

Jo said...

Firefly, yes, it definitely is...!

A Human, both you and Firefly are from South Africa, and I often wonder how our pasts might be connected.

Introspection, it is a sad story, isn't it? And even sadder, Helen's life became so rough, she has passed away too.

Duta, I have never heard that before. That is definitely food for thought...!

Nomore, it is an amazing twist of fate, isn't it?

Russell, well, I think the premise in the six degrees of separation theory is that we are all connected by six degrees, but not necessarily in a way that we can influence people.

Kathy, yes...! Borders and countries have very little influence in the human connection. It's a wonderful theory, isn't it?

Kenju, yes, I think there are many (!!!) more stories like this.

The Bug, what a great idea! In fact, there could be a whole series. And wouldn't it be interesting?

Blue Ridge Mountains, Wow! That would be amazing to hear some of your stories like that. The theory really does hold true, doesn't it!?

Charles Gramlich said...

So amazing how these things happen. And so tragic for Helen and Paul. I feel for them both.

Jo said...

Charles, yes, it is a real tragedy, isn't it? They were both such nice people.

C Hummel Kornell a/k/a C Hummel Wilson said...

Interesting story. This is truly a small world. Don't know if I agree with the 6 degree theory or not, but we certainly are all closely connected if we only take the time to look.

Jennifer D said...

What an amazing story. I have goosebumps all over me. Chilling.
Our lives are all so different aren't they?

greenpanda said...

That is such a shocking story.... for more reasons than one!
It's amazing, but recently we were talking about six degrees of seperation. Wow. Topical as always, Jo, well done. ;)

Marguerite said...

That is an incredibly, sad story and oh, your poor friend, Paul. Doctors make mistakes, as they are human, and this seems like such a drastic case. Very interesting theory!

Wenderina said...

It sounds like the plot for a great and surprising novel (although I recognize it is in actuality a tragic misfortune). I think Jodi Picoult should be emailed this tale.

Kathryn said...

I've been thinking about the 6 degrees of separation thing recently because of the internet blogging & social networking. I'm sure i learned of you thru Alane, or vice versa. A number of folks i now follow are also followed by a couple of people who follow me. I think somehow the internet has made all of this more apparent.

And, i've a feeling that connections like your story happen all the time, we just don't know about it. The TV show Lost touches on that in some of the back story where folks passed each other on the street before the plane crash & they never knew. In the TV show it seems too far-fetched (& most of that show is not realistic) but i imagine something similar happens fairly frequently.

On the other hand, i often feel disconnected to others who once had a significant part of my life & now are gone. We're still connected by the past, but it doesn't continue.

A.M. said...

Now that is an A+ story (inside joke) lol. I can't believe you knew these two people. How devastating. My husband and I spoke of this type of issue last night. Although you feel sympathy for the person who kills for vindication, it still doesn't make it right to take another life. How sad. I've been through a medical mishap myself, and it's the gentlemen's club. Doctors protect Doctors, Lawyers will protect Lawyers etc. Not ethical is it.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Oh, my. This story left me literally gasping. The concept of 6 degrees has always intrigued me, too, and I think that Facebook and its clones, which are built on that very premise, could be much better than they are if they were not mired in the shallowest kind of interaction.

How horrifying that the paths of two people you knew and liked crossed in such a dreadful way.

Jo said...

C. Hummell (Connie?) yes, we are all connected, and I would love to do an experiment sometime to see who (whom?) we all know in real life. That would be fun.

Jennifer, I got goosebumps when I found out what had happened too. It broke my heart.

Stephen, we just never know whose paths we are going to cross, do we? Truth is indeed stranger than fiction...!

Marguerite, yes, many mistakes were made. And both Paul and Helen we really lovely people. It was so tragic.

Wenderine, I don't know who Jodi Picoult is. Maybe I will Google her. The story reminded me a bit of a Somerset Maugham short story.

Kathryn, yes, our lives are sort of like bubbles that bump up against each other, and then go bouncing on their way to bump up against other bubbles, aren't they? We never know whose lives we are going to touch.

A.M., yes I don't condone what Helen did, but I do understand why she did it. But the horror of Paul being in the wrong place at the wrong time, through no fault of his own is such an awful and shocking twist. (A+? *heh* Thank you...!)

Hearts, when I heard what had happened to Helen and Paul, I cried for a couple of hours. Helen had been such a dear friend, and Paul should not have been where he was that day. The story of how he got there is another whole twist to the story that is shocking and very sad. The person responsible for sending him there I think regrets it to this day.

Michelle said...

Very interesting and we certainly live in a small world. Interesting also that you and my mother are both from the same town and met here! My husband and I both had great-grandmothers with the same maiden name! (and our families never knew one another here on Vancouver Island) - I guess we are somehow related to each another via distant English relatives. I love your stories. Thanks. Michelle.

Jo said...

Michelle, I think it is amazing that your mother and I are from the same town, and yet we did not know each other. Our family did, however, purchase a lot (!!!) of items from your mother's family's jewelry store. It was almost an institution in our town. So it is conceivable that she and I would have passed, perhaps on the street, or in the store -- or even Woodward's store. One degree of separation...! :-)

Country Girl said...

Now that's an interesting story. Helen must have been in much pain to have felt that this was the only way to get some satisfaction with her circumstances. It's sad.

Jo said...

Kate, Helen was a very nice person, so it was quite a shock when she did what she did. It broke my heart to see how they both ended up.

Paula Slade said...

That is an amazing story Jo! It gave me the "shivers."

Russell said...

I will post another comment. Like a bad habit I keep coming back!

I preach to my students (forget teaching!) that most everything in life is based on who you know.

If you can find a comment link with another person ("I happen to know so-and-so who I believe you know, also.....")suddenly things happen that otherwise would not have occurred.

In our society it is having the right form signed or a request made by the right person that gets so many things done.

I enjoyed this post a great deal and there is a lot of truth in it.

willow said...

There's some six degrees of separation going on at my post today. Pears to pope. ;^)

Jo said...

Paula, it's incredible, isn't it?

Russell, it's so true that so much of what goes on in our lives is "who you know" rather than "what you know"...

Willow, your post today is amazing -- as always. :-)

Alicia said...

Oh my gosh Jo, what an amazing story. How sad for poor Paul and for Helen as well as I'm sure she suffered greatly to take matters into her own hands in that way.

Jo said...

Alician, yes, she did what she did in desperation, and I felt so sad for both her and Paul. What a story, hey!?

Meggie said...

Yes, this world is about six degrees!