Is it Luck?

Years ago, while I was writing my thesis, my thesis adviser and I got into a conversation about luck and Horatio Alger. “Did you notice, Martha, that all Alger’s heroes have a lucky moment and they’re smart enough to grab it? It’s not just that they work hard and are humble. They’re lucky. That is undervalued in our society. We like to say hard work leads to success, but a person can work hard all his life and without a little luck, no one succeeds.”

I don’t think I answered him. I think that a light bulb was flashing in my brain.

Medieval people believed in the Wheel of Fortune and looked for ways to remain in a good position on that wheel. The Wheel of Fortune controlled everything, determined by the will of God which could be manipulated by prayer, penance and good deeds.

Candide by Voltaire is my “desert island book.” It’s the one volume I have in fancy leather binding on purpose. Godnose what you pick up in used bookstores (be warned). Among all the other wild and wonderful things that book is, it offers a wise perspective on “fortune.”

Dr. Pangloss — a world-renowned philosopher and the teacher of Candide, a wide-eyed, innocent and sweet young man — subscribes adamantly to the idea that “All things work together for good” and we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” What this means is that every horrible thing that happens will lead to something wonderful down the road. He’s incorrigibly positive.

Impossible coincidences, bad choices, horrific natural disasters, lost love and resignation, all there.

I read it in high school. I was far more jaded in high school than I was later in life or am now, the affectation of sophistication that many adolescents run with, the “too cool for school” thing. I thought it was boring. My dad said it wasn’t. I said it was. He said it was satire. I said it was stupid. He shrugged. I wrote my paper. It got a B.

Then, for some odd reason, I read it in my 40s. I laughed all the way through it and didn’t put it down until I found out what happened. Then, for years, I taught it to post-adolescents who rivaled me for jadedness and ended up liking it. πŸ™‚ (Good teacher!)

So what’s the point? At the end of the novel (it can’t be spoiled, even if I quote the entire ending) the trio of survivors, and a few more who join them, are somewhere in Turkey growing peaches or pistachios or something. Dr. Pangloss starts to make a speech about it being “The best of all possible worlds” that has brought them there.

“There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had not not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

In my mind, I see Candide sigh, thinking, “This again?” But he replies, “Excellently observed. But let us cultivate our garden.”

In my 40s, when I read Candide for real, I saw that this is pretty much all we CAN do.

The sign on my front fence. πŸ™‚

19 thoughts on “Is it Luck?

  1. Les Claypool! If only their lyrics and vocals were better … they could have gained more commercial success. Anyway, I’ve bumped Candide up my reading queue; it’s been on my to-read list for ages.
    On a somewhat related note, I have been trying to remember the title of a well-known Vietnamese novel in which all of life is basically about luck. Supposedly it is THE work of literature that Vietnamese people recommendβ€”it has that kind of stature in their culture. Does this ring any bells? Because I feel that luck has been absent, more or less, in my life, and I find the notion kinda interesting.

    • Sometimes it’s hard to identify “luck.” Back in 1999 I lost a Saturday class at a local community college. I depended on teaching that class to live, and the substitute dean just forgot to give them to me (Saturday class so I was kind of off the radar). A friend said, “All you can do is go peddle your CV.” I went to the local university that had ignored my CV for YEARS (I thought). I got there. Went to the counter and said, “I’m Martha Kennedy and I’m looking for classes this fall.” The receptionist said, “We’ve been trying to call you.” I ended up teaching there for 14 years and because of my bad luck I ended up with the retirement benefits I now live on. Crazy. It didn’t feel like luck at the time but it was luck.

      I love Primus because, you know, Jerry WAS a race car driver. πŸ˜‰

  2. Luck counts
    Grace counts
    Preparation counts
    Mindfulness counts
    I’m loving and living life on the path I chose and the path β€œFate” chose.

    • I fired the kid who mowed my lawn yesterday simply for not understanding 1) he should mow the lawn when it’s convenient for the customer, 2) he should show up when he says he will, 3) he should not change plans at the last minute. My “grace” wore out πŸ˜€ and that was his bad “luck”. I think you’re right and along with luck, grace, preparation and mindfulness there’s simple showing up. πŸ™‚

  3. Hence the term Panglossian, one which almost nobody in my current circle has heard of. However, most can guess the meaning. Pretty descriptive.

    It is a reassuring philosophy to have but not a useful metric for making decisions since all decisions are eventually “for the best”.

    • Or worst depending on your point of view. I have decided that it’s better to live as if I believed that “all things work together for good” even though I don’t think it’s true. I think all things just bumble along as best they can (and, simultaneously, as worst they can). The best we can say is, “Well, that’s what happened, maybe…” :p

    • As for luck, I think what Horatio Alger is saying is that *one needs to be on the lookout for good luck and be prepared to take advantage*.

      I think “good luck” is a little more common than people appreciate. While a very few may get consistently bad die rolls and others consistently good die rolls (this is inevitable in any randomized situation) I think a lot of people either miss their lucky die rolls because they weren’t paying attention, don’t think outside the box or fail to take advantage of them because they were convinced of failure.

      The chance to go to China could be seen as “luck” you were ready and willing to take advantage of. A Horatio Alger moment.

      But luck is relative. The poor man who lives a long life and finds his happiness is luckier than the rich teen who commits suicide. That isn’t a popular attitude to take today.

      I missed a lot of good luck by being psychologically unable to take advantage. And it left me vulnerable to bad luck most people would have shrugged off in the same situation. It took decades of slow personal growth and some genuine good luck to change that.

      The ultimate “luck” is to be born to a loving family that happens to have the resources to keep you healthy and the wisdom to encourage you to be strong. Future “lucky die rolls” will often be an extension of that original good luck. That original good luck will mitigate many of the bad die rolls one may encounter along the way.

      Bad die rolls are increased in probability and in impact by a less fortunate original die roll.

      • My “original die roll” wasn’t great. I don’t know how many of us have a really fortunate die roll. I think a lot of luck is (as you imply) being psychologically prepared for good fortune — basically an optimistic temperament which it was my luck to be born with into a family with more than its fair share of intrinsic problems. I credit a lot of our “luck” to the luck of our genetics and I think our basic psychological orientation might be related to that good luck. Maybe that’s your poor happy man and the suicidal rich guy.

        I think one thing about “luck” is not being fixated on what you think you want or some paradigm of success that has nothing to do with you. Lots of people are blinded by those things. I recently had a very informative dream in which I had a chance at tenure at a community college. In the dream one of the people who was about to offer me the job said, “Why do you want this? You already have a lecturer’s contract at the university. It’s more money, more prestige and you’re happy there.” In my real life, years ago, I actually lived that moment, but the voice was in my head. Until then, I thought I wanted tenure. After that, I never sought it. For a long time I thought I was having bad luck, but then I realized where I actually was. That’s part of luck too, I think.

  4. I totally believe in luck, although most of my family attribute all good things to God.
    Maybe that’s true. They never say they or anyone else is lucky. If I walked out my front door right now and found a pot of gold with my name on it, I’m going with luck, no matter how it got there. I like your sign!

    • Thank you. The sign is my political statement. πŸ˜€ Luck, divine providence, whatever. I go with “luck.” I don’t think it excludes divine providence, but my understanding of THAT is closer to Deism than God being up there like a celestial puppet master setting everything up for everyone on this planet forever.

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