Gordon Livingston

Gordon S Livingston M.D.

Lifelines

The role of chance in human affairs.

The most pointless question in the world is "Why me?"

Posted Jan 02, 2011

     The conventional wisdom sold to us by the cult of personal responsibility would suggest that we all make our own luck. This leads inevitably to discussions about things like whether or not we are responsible if our plane is hijacked. Psychoanalysis with its focus on the swamp of unconscious thoughts and feelings that have such an effect on our behavior would propose that "there are no accidents." While it is doubtlessly true that we are in fact responsible for most of what happens to us, surely there is a place in human affairs for the inadvertent and unpredictable. When the only empty seat in the room at that conference 38 years ago was the one next to my future wife, it is hard for me to deny that this was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.
     And yet there is something to the truisms: "Chance favors the prepared mind," "Fortune favors the bold," "The harder I work, the luckier I get." There is something to be said for preparedness in any discussion of human relationships. In a sense we can think of our lives as groundwork for the good things and people we will encounter. Still, whether we do encounter them owes a lot of luck. Our job when we are young is to become the person whom we seek and put ourselves in situations where a meeting is likely to happen.
     Meanwhile we are engaged in the other tasks that complete our lives: getting an education, finding activities that cause us to lose track of time, cultivating habits that lead to energy and good health (and avoiding those that do not), learning, in other words, discerning how the world works. An important component of this knowledge is how to cope with the passage of time, especially the all-important process of knowing what to hold onto and what to relinquish.
     Perhaps it is this latter skill, learning how to let go, that will be most useful to us given the number of losses that we will be faced with. If we are lucky there will be some predictability to the process. Our parents will predecease us; our children will not. Our bodies and minds will not betray us until near the end. Nothing catastrophic will happen before its time to us or those we love. We can hope, but always with the knowledge that what we control in these matters is significantly less than what we do not. And so, we would do well to prepare ourselves as well as we can for the unexpected. Simply acknowledging the role of chance will enable us to be humbled without breaking.
     Far too often we take credit for our good luck, which makes us vulnerable to later misfortune. Whenever I hear someone who has had something terrible happen to them ask the most pointless question in the world, "Why me?" I have the impulse to confront them with the answer, "Why not you?" There is an implication on the part of those who are surprised at bad luck that they have somehow earned their good fortune, which they expected to persist indefinitely. This attitude is of a piece with that of someone who believes that because they are a good person who has obeyed the rules that they will be rewarded. This, of course, is a subset of the myth that life is fair, or that God rewards us in accord with our devotion and worthiness. What evidence is there for such beliefs?
     A better question when confronted with bad luck (or good luck for that matter) is "What do I do now that this has happened to me?" If our misfortune is great, the death of a child for example, it is easy to get stuck in our grief. We become like a soldier who has lost a limb, entitled to feel sorry for ourselves and with a need to grieve our loss for whatever time it takes us. Still the question hangs there: "What next?" How long we take to answer is up to us.
     So luck is an ever-present force in our lives. It teaches us humility. No matter how hard we work, how much money we have, how important to us is control in all we do, still we are subject to the vagaries of chance. Only fools believe that they are the sole, or even primary, architects of their fates. We are subject to cancer, to car crashes, to wayward lightning strikes, and, finally, to the ravages of time. What gives each moment its intensity is the knowledge that we are all hanging by a thread and the control that we work so hard to establish is an illusion, that the race is really not, in the long run, to the swift.