Matters of Luck
by Jerry DeNuccio
When the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “The Sirens of Titan,” Malachi Constant, America’s wealthiest man due to a purely random system for speculating in corporate securities, is asked to explain his “fantastically good luck financially,” he replies, “I guess somebody up there likes me.”
Apparently, somebody up there did not like a young Chicago woman who was struck dead on the sidewalk as she walked to lunch by a chunk of a gargoyle that fell from a church’s steeple. Nor, seemingly, did somebody up there like actress Molly Glynn, who, bicycling in a park, was killed, as she sped to safety from a suddenly-arising storm, by a toppling tree.
Both accidents can be explained. The church, a 142 year old historical landmark, had been cited by the city in 2011 for structural code violations having to do with its exterior walls. The citation was rescinded after repairs were made. Nonetheless, three years later, a metal ornamentation sagged loose, dislodging the gargoyle and causing a piece of it to plummet streetward. And ferocious storms do arise suddenly and do generate enough power to uproot trees, the danger of which is undoubtedly magnified in a tree-dense setting like a park.
What cannot be explained, however, was why these two particular women happened to be at those particular spots at those particular moments. Why was it, how was it, that time, place, and external conditions conspired to place them there, right there? What caused the causes that led to such unfortunate outcomes? What can account for this uncanny, capricious, and deadly game of tag in which the two women were it? There is, of course, no answer to these questions. Both fatalities resulted from random acts, and by definition, random acts defy explanation. They just happen. They are unwarranted, unpredictable, design-less, causeless, senseless. They are the brutishness, the swoop and swerve, the twist and turn, of how things go. They are, quite simply, matters of chance, which is to say, matters of luck.
We tend to play peekaboo with the concept of luck. On the one hand, we know the world too often refuses to willingly respond to our requests of it. We know that change can be swift and arbitrary, that the vagaries of fate are an irreducible element of our embodied being. We continually observe that rewards and punishments, success and failure, triumph and tragedy can be ill-deserved. And while we no longer acknowledge, as did the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, a goddess Fortuna, we do, when faced with the giddy spin of “Fortune’s furious fickle wheel,” say they are acts of God, part of His inscrutably plotted divine narrative, or we caution ourselves and others not to tempt the gods with overreaching desires or expectations.
We practice our own forms of divination to domesticate the unpredictable. True, we no longer engage in sacrificial animal slaughter, examine the entrails of birds, consult oracles, or build altars and light sacred fires to invoke the goodwill of a patron god or goddess; we do, however, consult experts; we devise polls and surveys and market forecasts and probability analyses and statistical models; and, in general, we engage in innumerable ritualized behaviors, practice countless superstitions, and wear or carry about us a variety of charms and amulets that we are convinced will allow us to command outcomes or, at the very least, ward off bad luck and extend good luck’s expiration date.
On the other hand, our culture preaches the virtue of self-reliance. We are told that where there is a will there is a way, that we captain the frigate of our destiny, that the universe answers to our conception of it, that through motivation and hard work we can cultivate our potential, be what it is in us to become. We find the idea of dumb luck or lucky breaks hard to accept; it lacks the coherence of cause and effect; its capriciousness sabotages our need to believe in a fundamentally fair world in which we receive what we deserve. Accomplishment and defeat, we are convinced, lie not in our stars but in ourselves. We tell ourselves stories in which our own efforts and enterprise and skill underwrite our success, or, if they are lacking, undermine it.
I do not for a moment doubt the truth of these cultural credos. History and personal experience demonstrate that we have what psychologists call an “internal locus of control.” And yet, equally undeniable, we are beholden to an “external locus of control,” to the jounce and jangle of randomness, the kink and crease of chance, the clout and cuff of luck, that puncture circumstance and experience. Consider:
• that the subjectively unique we and the universe we observe here and now, are accidents, the chance balance of the universe’s fine structure constants—the precise degree of forces and energies—that allow life on this planet to emerge and survive. Current thinking among many physicists attributes this fine-tuning to the multiverse theory, which means, according to physicist Alan Lightman, that from “the cosmic lottery hat containing zillions of universes, we happened to draw a universe that allowed life.”
• that the random mutations powering natural selection, a basic factor in evolution, proceed by chance.
• that at the subatomic level quantum indeterminacy reigns, a world of uncertainty, discontinuity, and chance that jitterbugs beneath the stately waltz of classical Newtonian mechanics.
• that a team of Johns Hopkins researchers has discovered that up to two-thirds of cancers are caused by the bad luck of random genetic misprinting when the trillions of healthy human cells divide.
• that we cannot predict what will cause a stock market surge or fallback, and that, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor of Psychology Daniel Kahneman, risk assessments by entrepreneurs and market forecasts by financial experts “focus on the causal role of skill and neglect the role of luck,” thereby fostering “an illusion of control.”
• the words of The Preacher in Ecclesiastes 9:11–12: ”I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.”
The wheel of fortune revolves, spinning us up, spinning us down, when and how and why we cannot know. It spins. The what it is that we can do and be, the intentional personal power we exert by virtue of our talents, gifts, and determination, is inevitably moored to the impersonal iffiness of what it is that will happen. That iffiness does not mean we cannot live with purpose, and will, and engagement; rather, it means, as Edgar Allan Poe tells us, that “it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely.” We should plan for the unplanned to occur; anticipate the unanticipated that will walk through the back door of our lives while our attention is directed elsewhere.
And when good luck comes, I say ride it, ride it, ride it. It is a grace. Dwell in it; enjoy it, but know that its lease has all too short a date. And when bad luck comes, make whatever peace with it you can. Who knows: it may open us to humility and gratitude; may offer a perspective, a critical distance; may catalyze mercy in us who are at the mercy of it. Who knows: because we all chase certainties and find chance; because we all shiver in our naked exposure to contingency; because bad luck is an equalizing force, binding us all more firmly that our most assured affirmations; it may inspire in us an ethic of fellow feeling compassion rather than an ethic of competitive individualism. Who knows: it could happen.
It would be our luck if it did.