The Search for Meaning

Science, spirituality, and our desire for satisfaction

What Will You Do if You Win $550 Million Powerball Lottery?

How to live your life even if you don’t have all the money and time you want

The Powerball Lottery jackpot currently stands at $550 million – about $275 million after taxes to a single winner. That’s a lot of money by almost anyone’s standards. Whether you buy a ticket or not, it’s worth asking yourself what you would do if you won.

Truth be told, I’ve never been much of a lottery person. It turns out that the odds of winning are virtually the same whether you buy a ticket or you don’t. Actually, if you harbor a secret belief that you might in fact win the lottery, let me pass along a few things you might usefully worry about. These are things more likely to happen to you than winning Powerball.

You are more likely to be crushed to death by a vending machine than you are to win Powerball. You are more likely to become President or have identical quadruplets. You are more likely to become a movie star or be struck by lightning. Any one of these wildly unlike events is a near certainty compared to the odds of winning Powerball.

But what if you did win Powerball? What if someone handed you a check of $275 million after taxes? What would you do with it?

Even if you succumb to the temptation to buy a bunch of extremely expensive things that need to be insured, and fueled, and mowed, and painted, and stored, and updated, and repaired, and replaced, you’ll still be faced with the question of what to do with the rest. In other words, you’ll eventually be faced with the question of whether you merely want to do well for yourself or whether you actually want to do good for the world.

If you win the lottery, what good will you want to do? What difference will you want to make? The novelist and essayist Frederick Buechner says that you find your calling where your deep passion meets the world’s deep need. What’s your calling?

Whatever your calling might be, I know one thing: it’s not lottery dependent. Whatever difference you can decisively make with $275 million, you can incrementally make with $275, or $2,750, or $27,500. Unless you are seriously worried about being crushed by a vending machine, then you shouldn’t worry about winning the lottery. Instead, take your money and get seriously busy making a difference in the world.

As it turns out, the same principle holds true when it comes to time, except conversely. The telling question isn’t what you would do if you had all the time in the world. It’s what you would do if you didn’t. The late renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross once said, “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.”

This brings us back to the lottery principle and its converse. Get busy making the difference you would make if you had all the money in the world, even though you don’t. And focus on the priorities you would have if your life were going to end soon, even though it’s probably not.

Galen Guengerich, Ph.D., is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan and author of the book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age.

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