“Conditio Sine Qua Non” Or The Difference Between “Fault” And “Causality”

“It is not the fall that kills you. It’s the sudden stop at the end.”

[Douglas Adams]

Conditio sine qua non” roughly translates to “Condition without which the outcome would be different”. It’s the fundamental instrument in law to distinguish between the factual responsibility of a person and his legal responsibility.


  • Giving birth to a murderer makes you factually responsible for the murders he committed, because if you hadn’t given him life he would not have been able to take the life of another human being.= Causality
  • However giving life to a murderer does not make you legally responsible for his actions in the same way you would be if you had dropped a loaded gun into his hands, turned him to face the victim and told him to pull the trigger. = Fault

To distinguish between these two parts in a chain of cause and effect is essential, not just in front of a judge and jury in a courtroom, but especially in life.

The example I used to illustrate the difference is easy. Everybody regardless of their academic training would immediately agree the mother of a murderer can not be held responsible for the deeds of her child merely on account of her giving birth to him. Tragically, in life, the situations we are faced with are not always that clear and the distinction is not always that easy.

My mother died from drowning, suffocating. The water filled her lungs preventing the oxygen to enter. Failure of oxygen to pass through her blood caused her heart to stop beating. When your heart stops beating you die. It’s very simple. Cause and effect.

Now the reason my mother drowned was because she hit her head whilst taking a bath and became unconscious causing her head to sink below the water mark. Again very logical.

The reason for her to hit her head was that she had an epileptic seizure. No questions or hesitations here either.

All of the above are facts.

Another fact is, that my mother should have taken the subscribed medication to avoid seizures. Yet she didn’t. Also she had been known to have seizures mostly when she was in contact with water and she knew that. Furthermore the autopsy report stated that when I found my mother in the bathtub, dead, at the age of 2 1/2 and the paramedics were alerted she had already been dead for several hours.

This last bit is a rather new piece of information I acquired only recently, since the subject of my mother is one not lightly breached in our household and especially with my father. It’s not that he refuses to talk about her, it is simply that he doesn’t volunteer any information on his own and freezes out the conversation until it is changed. My father, too, is a lawyer. We are both trained in the art of answering without divulging information. The difference is he is more experienced and excellent in his profession. I am unfairly matched.

All of this aside, just looking at the facts, makes it so hard to distinguish between “fault” and “causality“. So why try? Maybe because I feel safe labeling situations. I am highly organized (some people have called me “monkish”) and I like defining and sorting emotions and storing them away in little boxes to open separately. Looking at certain things with your head instead of with your heart is a strong measure of protection. It avoids having to deal with an avalanche of emotions. It avoids relenting control to an unknown.

So I decipher my mother’s fatal day, her 30th birthday, logically and analytically, as I have been trained to do. That’s what I have been doing all my life. It’s easy for me to do that.

It’s easy for me to ask: “Why was my mother in a bathtub unsupervised for several hours when it was common knowledge that she was prone to seizures in the proximity of water?” ,when I know that the answer is: “Because she would allow no one to interfere with her decisions. Because she was headstrong to a fault. Because she hated being reminded of her condition.” Causality, not fault. You see, I have just exonerated everybody still living from the (main) responsibility.

This relieves of having to confront anger and emotions towards my father to the sort of “Why didn’t you take better care of your wife, my mother? Why didn’t you check on her earlier? Why didn’t you force her to have someone present when she showered or bathed? Why couldn’t you stop this from happening?” Fault not causality.

Also, asking why my mother chose not to take her medication vital to her survival without consulting a neurologist is easy because there too I know the answer. She did it because at that point in time the medication prescribed to her drugged her to a point where she was not able to focus on an active toddler. She did it to be able to be a mother for me every moment of the day. Again causality not fault.

This answer allows me to stray from questions like “Why didn’t you find a different solution? Why wouldn’t you consult your doctor first? Why didn’t you take better care of yourself so I could have a mother for more than the first 2 1/2 years of my life? Why didn’t you do everything you could to prevent abandoning me?” Fault not causality.

This approach has worked for me for the last 20 something years to a great extent. It has kept me functioning. It has kept me focused. It has enabled me to put my emotions in labeled boxes to store away in the darker corners on my mind.

Unfortunately, this only works so far and I have come to end of my rope. I realize now, that I have to ask question that won’t heed answers easily boxed away.

I won’t be able to distinguish between “fault” and “causality” that easily anymore. It is time for me to stop calming the logical adult in me with pre-labeled answers and start comforting the 2 1/2-year-old in me who does not understand logical analysis.

I feel it’s time to come to another step in this approach: to the raw emotional one. It’s time to start acknowledging the lost little girl inside me who desperately misses her mother. Who is angry at everybody for losing her. Who feels deprived of the experience of unconditional motherly love. Who is sad and lonely and confused.

I am not entirely sure how well this approach will work for me. I know the greatest challenge will be to not fall back onto my safety blanket of logic and analysis but actually allow the full range of emotions. This thought to me isn’t scary, it’s terrifying.

The one thing I have to remind myself that it’s going to be okay, is that there isn’t just the difference between “fault” and “causality”, but also between “owning a fault” and “being legally responsible”.

Maybe my father is responsible for what happened to some extent (my mother’s death and the impact it had on my further life)? Maybe he did make mistakes? Maybe he could have and should have done better? Maybe my mother was irresponsible? Maybe she could have prevented all of this? Maybe having my mother there would have made my life easier?

Even if the answer to all of this is “Yes”, that does not mean that they have committed a crime against me. I don’t have to ask logical questions to protect them from an unfavourable judgement from the little girl inside of me. They might be responsible, but they are not at fault.

Maybe they just made mistakes. Mistakes that lead to tragic accidents. The greatest of which being my mother’s untimely end. We are all human and accidents happen.

But it still sucks!

9 thoughts on ““Conditio Sine Qua Non” Or The Difference Between “Fault” And “Causality”

  1. Pingback: "Conditio Sine Qua Non" Or The Difference Between "Fault" And "Causality" | Kids say :

  2. OK, I read this one after the most recent one. My heart has stopped. I am so sorry. You put it out there, you did, that’s all you can do right? And by doing so, you are less alone. There are so many others too, but we all get lost from each other. They will find you, they will come to you, the others who understand. I know that sounds crazy, but I’m not crazy, I’m not, I think we have to show our need, show we miss the prodigal heart that has for so long missing. She we want it back. Somewhere in another country, another girl who can’t stand not having a mother is thinking of you.

    • Thank you for your heartfelt words – they mean a lot! Have you ever seen the movie “HappyThankYouMorePlease”? If you haven’t don’t worry, it’s a pseudo-indie-flick not really worth watching. However, the one thing that stuck with me, is that you have to ask the universe for what you want and it will come to you. As in “I am Happy , Thank You , Could I have some more of that please? So that’s my approach 🙂 However, even at risk of sounding corny – finding you already answered so much of that 🙂 It’s great talking to you 🙂

  3. I am coming to believe in the power of invitation. I also believe there is something innate in us that seeks to preserve life in others, to keep them warm and alive. But those in need must first send up a signal, a cry of distress, something. It seems unlikely someone would be drawn to be there for a person who doesn’t know they are hurting. That’s probably been my problem, I’ve tried to be self-sufficient, to feel like I can do it all on my own, and this has probably made it hard for others to locate me, if you know what I mean.

    We aren’t meant to do this all alone, though some experiences are so singular we find we are in just such a position. Maybe that’s what being damned really is, to be without others who have walked in our shoes. Maybe being saved is realizing you actually have something of value inside, something very important to share. I am happy to give what I have, it seems the more I let go, the more that comes back to me. Never worry about corny with me : ).

  4. You are right and still you might be wrong. Let me elaborate. I fully agree with no-man-being-an-island and the power of invitation. However, I do believe that there are some ubersensitive people out there, that can pick up on emotions before they are voiced. When I met my b.f. I was presenting the image of the utterly in control Bree Vandekamp – y self-sucient personified Perfection to the outside world and EVERYBODY bought it. Everybody that is, except for him. He called me on my crap. And everything else is history… .
    You are right though people who pick up on those suttle waves are rare.

    Also it is so much easier to be there for someone who has asked for your help. I think people will sometimes feel like intruders, when they voice concern about situations that are not their own. We have all been raised to respect other people’s privacy and we have all been raised to present a stiff upper lip to the world and I feel that’s where the real predicament lies. It’s like you said, if you don’t send an S.O.S. to the world chances are slim nobody will come to your rescue. Not just because they don’t see your ship sinking, but because they are insecure about if you want them to help.

    Just a last quick thought – have you ever realized that people who ask for help are usually perceived as strong rather than week? So why is it, that asking for help makes us feel so small? It should empower us, shouldn’t it?

  5. I think your BF and I have something in common. Early on I had to learn to see through the motives of others, and quickly, to determine if they were true, trustworthy. My husband calls it my “bullshit detector”. I’ve tried to tone it down, as it’s pretty much an unconscious thing I have, I just am, “exquisitely sensitive” as my therapist would say, but that’s also why I feel more pain. It can make life feel agonizing.

    What I meant was that the majority of people are not such freaks (ha ha, sorry to your bf), and don’t necessary see through our ruses, or given personas. They take what is given them, stick to what’s on the menu, ya know. They may be busy, or just maybe don’t care, or not interested, or whatever.

    I think it depends on how they person asks for help. Some people make you feel manipulated, which I can’t go into detail now, as I’m running late. But you know what I mean, these are the people who somehow manage to make you feel they need something from you in everything they say and do. I had some neighbors like that. They were the sweetest people on the surface, but nearly everything they said resulted in a lowered chin, a shaking of the head, like I was supposed to do something to make up for the bad person x they had just told me about. Maybe that was their problem, they just told me how badly they’d been treated but never told me what they needed. They also lacked any interest in gaining insight around their own behaviors, it was always they who were the powerless victims being acted upon. It was just out of balance.

  6. So funny – I think having b.s.-detector is a great thing! Don’t EVER turn it down – just be aware of how and when to call people on their crap if you want to be diplomatic, but having it to me is like a superpower. Okay, granted it’s not as good as flying, but stil… . 🙂

    Yes, I know exactly what you mean with your neighbours! It’s not question of simply asking for help, but of making you feel like you should have offered sooner – it’s the vicitimisation and the manipulation of it. I get that! I had a roommate once who was like that and in the end it was me doing her laundry 😉
    I fall for stuff like that easily.
    I think it’s the honesty that is appealing to everybody. An honest “I’m sorry. I can’t do this alone. Could you please help me?” should resonate with everybody.
    Especially if it remains a question and isn’t turned into a demand 🙂

  7. Diplomacy is key with the BS detector. I got to the point where I starting seeing it less as a super power and more like something that could actually hurt others, make them feel exposed and vulnerable. I quoted F Scott Fitzgerald in a tiny xtranormal movie I made, it’s on my blog, it’s called I’ve just Seen a Face, I think it’s part 3. Anyway, in it the character says he has met someone he likes, and he describes a person who, in my opinion, has tamed or civilized her bullshit detector. The character, that I stole it from is referring to their impression of The Great Gatsby. My character doesn’t tell the woman in the scene he is quoting Fitzgerald. I’m probably not making sense : ).

  8. I guess the bs detector is like everything else in life, to used wisely. I admit that I didn’t understand the last couple of sentences of your comment, but maybe that’s because I am still tired 🙂
    In any case I will check out “I’ve seen a face 3” and take if from there 🙂

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