Luck Is a Rotten Concept (and therefore definitely bad for you)

I’ve always considered myself a pretty lucky guy. Really, even now, there is plenty of reason to feel as though I have led a blessed existence. But if I hear one more person suggest that getting cancer is “bad luck” or that I need some “good luck” to cure it, I may just pop a cork.

Let’s get one thing straight: luck does not really exist.

There is a story in one of my daughter’s picture books about a farmer who has bad luck, but it turns out to be really good luck, but leads to something bad which also turns out to be fortunate… Luck is a concept that leads nowhere except back upon itself.

Here are some other things that do not really exist: karma, providence, fate. These are concepts that fall into the realm of belief for many people, through their philosophical visions of the world or their religion. But they are not real things that act upon us or respond to our own actions. They are concepts which we can use to qualify the world around us as we see fit, but that is about where it ends. When I say that I consider myself lucky, I really mean that I have been fortunate. And that is true, I feel fortunate. I have been in places that seemed right for me at the time. I have had experiences that appeared to be just what I needed when they happened. But I don’t think that there was any level of destiny involved.

In fact, I am sure that were those experiences not to have happened or if my geography were different, I would have found some comparable sensation of things going correctly for my life in some other way. We, as humans, have a unique ability to draw correlations and spot “coincidences” (another thing that does not really exist in a broad, deliberate sense) because humans love patterns. Humans love things to be happening for a purpose. Humans love the idea that there is a bigger plan out there drawing them through life.

But it doesn’t work that way. Not really. And yet, this should not stop us from appreciating the connections we see, appraising the fortune in our existences and being open to the beauty of it all.

The problem occurs when it is treated too literally. This stops people from being an active part of their own lives to some degree, and it certainly alters the level of personal responsibility in some way, whether skewing it high or low. On one hand, there is the notion of karma, which indicates that we have a far, far higher level of control in how our fortunes evolve. The flip side to that is the notion of luck, which basically means that we have no control whatsoever. Neither of those is absolutely true, though a certain bit of each undeniably plays into our personal experience. Certainly, if we create an action, it will have consequences, thus playing into the concept of karma with the occasional minor bit of accuracy. And certainly there are things that are entirely out of our direct control that can affect us positively (winning the lottery) or negatively (winning the lottery) depending on how our ensuing responses play out. Or a plane can fly into your house and kill everyone. That is pretty bad luck, but probably not strictly karmic, unless you have been really, really bad.

When I step outside and breath in the fresh morning air, it reminds me of how good it is to be alive. I try to take stock of the things I have to be grateful for every day, because I have seen how fragile our existence is and how ephemeral most of the things of this world truly are. I pay attention to the state of the planet, the interplay of nations and the goings on in my own backyard and then I consider my own personal space and the imaginary fence that runs protectively around my family.

The simple facts of my life cannot be undervalued to me and yet at times I wonder how — and more importantly, why — I have been in the position to have this level of good fortune. I was born into a nice family through no fault nor predisposition of my own. I’ve been gifted with certain levels of security all my life that many other people have never had the privilege of experiencing. And these things are inherently unfair in the broader scheme of the world. Thus, counting my fortunes also makes me feel somewhat responsible for spreading them. If I cannot exactly share my level of modest security or my largely trauma-free upbringing, I have to find some other way to share and improve the world around me.

For many years, I’ve sought to do this with the tool of ideas, and I realize that may not be enough. So I continue to look for ways to bring my feeling of good fortune out into the world for others. And it is a sensibility I would like to extend to my fellow human citizens of the world. While “luck” may well be a pretty rotten concept for the simple reason that it absolves the believer of responsibility, the notion of good fortune, earned or otherwise, is somewhat different. Fortunes are meant to be shared, not horded. And if those fortunes are emotional or intellectual or whatever, they can benefit a wider society just as easily as if they were monetary. And perhaps even more so. But as a culture, we never will know until more people focus on spreading their fortunes, an act that cannot even begin until those people acknowledge the fortunes they already have.

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Originally published at on December 4, 2014.

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