The Role of Luck -- Thoughts on a Birthday
There's a lot of luck in life.
The longer I live -- Aug. 2 was my birthday -- the more I come to realize how much of life is affected by luck.
Let's begin with life itself. Whether one lives to 62 -- or to 92 (my father's age) -- and whether in health or in sickness is largely a matter of luck.
I strongly believe in taking care of one's health, but for most people, living long and in good health is a matter of good luck.
My wife's sister died of cancer at 35. The brother of my radio show's producer died of a brain tumor at 57. Friends of mine lost their son at the age of 13.
None of these people did anything "wrong." Whether you get a brain tumor or not is identical to whether you win at roulette. Either the ball falls on your number or it doesn't.
The subject of the role of luck -- good and bad -- depresses many people. And well it should. To realize how much happens to us and others that is not in our control is sobering, if not depressing. And some reject it outright.
Some people -- many who believe in karma or various expressions of New Age thought, for example -- believe that everything that happens to us we bring upon ourselves. Even if we are hit by a drunken driver, we somehow caused it.
That, of course, is irrational.
And many religious people resent the notion of the role of luck since it seems to minimize the power of God in this world.
As a religious person myself, I reject this outlook. Are we to believe that God chose every one of Mao's 75 million victims to die? That He willed the deaths of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust? That every person who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease or Multiple Sclerosis was chosen by God to suffer until death?
That may indeed be the case. But for those of us who do not believe in such a God -- and I respect those who do -- all these people simply had terrible luck. I am alive because my grandparents came to America instead of staying in Eastern Europe, where they would have almost certainly been murdered in the Holocaust. They were lucky. And if one insists that they were wise rather than lucky, that somehow they realized that calamity awaited them in Russia and Poland, then my parents and I were lucky that they were wise.
There is not enough space in a column for a discussion of theodicy, the problem of reconciling a good God with unjust suffering. Suffice it to say, then, that I believe God exists; that He is just; that for reasons I cannot understand, He made a world in which injustice abounds; that He knows every one of us and that He works out these injustices in an afterlife.
But whatever one's view of God's role (except that He directs every single thing that happens), luck permeates life.
My parents were married 69 blissful years. I asked them and many other couples who had long and happy marriages what was the secret to their marital success. And the answer boils down to ... good luck. Virtually every person involved in a long and happy marriage -- long and unhappy marriages don't count -- simply had the good fortune to find the right person for themselves. That is why happily married couples are usually more understanding of those who divorce than unhappily married ones are. (The latter often resent the fact that others left bad marriages while they remain unhappily married.)
As for the notion that "we make our own luck" through hard work and responsible living, it is only partially true. You can do all the right things in life and still not end up successful. And many people do a lot of wrong things and end up quite lucky. I know great parents who have a very troubled child, and dysfunctional parents who have magnificent children. I will never forget overhearing someone say to my father after I gave a lecture, "You must have been a terrific father to produce such a son." And my father simply answered, "I was lucky."
So where does all this power of good and bad luck leave us?
It should leave those who have been largely fortunate in life humble about their success, not to mention their health, longevity, children, etc. And those who have been hit with more than their fair share of bad luck should understand that if it really was bad luck and not their own actions that caused them misery, what happened to them was not a punishment (from God or from life).
The role of luck notwithstanding, there remains one area of life in which we are in charge: how we react. I learned this in high school when I read the great book "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl. As a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp, he learned that there was only one thing about an inmate's life that the Nazi guards could not control: how the inmate reacted to what happened to him.
If that was true in Auschwitz, it is true for most of us.
Dennis Prager hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show and is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author of four books, most recently "Happiness Is a Serious Problem" (HarperCollins). His website is www.dennisprager.com.
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