Luck is a Happy Delusion

Many of the most impactful events of our lives are governed by happenstance. They are just accidents of time and circumstance that intersect at malleable moments. People with whom we become lifelong friends or lifelong enemies; our spouses; careers we follow; jobs offered to us; layoffs that turn our lives upside down—they are simply accidents that subsequently govern our lives. If the time or location or people involved had been just slightly different, almost every aspect of our lives might have contrasted radically with “the way it turned out.”

Some people attribute their lives to divine guidance. Others claim desire and unyielding willpower are responsible for their “fate.” Still others suggest bumbling accidents bore fruit, which became the course of our lives. I am with the latter group. Except for bumbling and stumbling in whatever direction we took, we might have bumbled and stumbled in an entirely different direction.

Had I not decided to join my work colleagues after work for drinks at The Jolly Fox in Huntsville, Texas in 1976 (or was it 1977?), I might not have married the woman who is now my wife. (No, I didn’t meet her there; but that’s where I “discovered” her—it’s a long story.) And if I hadn’t grown close to her after that encounter, I might have accepted one of the job offers I received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture or an Education Service Center; neither of those options would have led to the career I ultimately followed. And had I not followed that career, I might not have visited many foreign countries or explored so many U.S. states. And I would not have met and become close to people who have mattered to me. The “what ifs” are stunning in number and scope. If I hadn’t gone to The Jolly Fox that afternoon, for example, I might have retired at age fifty-five from a career in civil service. I might have drifted into conservatism and become deeply disaffected with college-educated liberal weirdos. The world might have been a different place. But it became what it is.

In my case, most of the coincidences in my life led to good fortune and were the stuff of happy accidents. I have been lucky in the extreme. Not “I-won-the-lottery” lucky, but generally “my-quality-of-life-has-been-far-better-than-adequate” lucky. There is no point in pondering “what if” because what if never happened and never will; history is history is history. But I think the realization that much of our good (or bad) fortune arises out of sheer happenstance, coincidence, timing, etc. is worth contemplation. If nothing else, the pure good fortune that befalls us ought to alert us to the reality that pure bad fortune befalls others and could, at any moment, befall us.

People don’t intentionally make bad choices that lead them in unhappy directions. They aren’t poor, uneducated, malnourished, misguided, or under-employed simply as a result of bad genes; being in the wrong place at the wrong time or, just as likely, not being in the right place at the right time, is where the blame must fall. Sheer bad luck. Or sheer good luck.

Luck is an illusion, by the way. Luck suggests an unknown external “force” exerts some form of mystical control over us; either bad or good. Yet our fortunes, good or bad, can’t be attributed entirely (or, in most cases, largely) to our own actions, decisions, efforts, etc. It’s just happenstance. A chance occurrence. A statistical anomaly. A blip on the screen that displays our lives.

For all these reasons, we ought not be so quick to give ourselves credit for our good fortune nor blame for our bad luck. But we should, I think, take it upon ourselves to respond to circumstances with grateful appreciation when our fortunes are good and, when situations are not our friends, with unrelenting resolve and determination to change when we can. This is, of course, easier said than done. Conditions can beat us down quickly and without giving us the opportunity to respond with righteous indignation. That’s when those of us whose fortunes are better should step forward to lend a helping hand. We should always remember we may one day need that same compassionate support.

There’s a difference between feeling an obligation to offer support or compassion and a deep-seated desire to extend those emotional anchors.

I wish I knew how to trigger the desire in every case, rather than force myself to bend to obligation in some cases. But the fact is I sometimes find it hard to force myself to extend an offer of a helping hand, even to people who deserve it. The effort seems to be something of a burden to me. I try to do it, anyway, but I’m very conscious of the fact that recognizing it as a burden puts me in a very bad light; good people don’t have to be made to feel guilty to do good.

Why all this is on my mind this morning is beyond me. It’s just another episode in my ongoing struggle to drag happy thoughts out of ugliness and failing. What the hell? I have ample reason to be ecstatic, yet I cringe at the thought of all my failings. I’m not really such a bad guy. Why do I treat myself as if I were? It’s a mystery, as they say. A deep, dark, dangerous, demonic mystery. The problem, I think, is the absence of sainthood. Where the hell is my halo? And why is it so damned tarnished, as if it were made not of gold but of cheap brass in an atmosphere laden with salt air and acidic vapor?

I’m so lucky to be able to write and dismiss what I’ve written as vile fluff, deserving of a book burning. Except there’s no book. And the furnace is a faux fireplace lit with artificial candles. Ha! I’m at it again. See? Thinking can be fun.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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