When I was in college everyone took a personality test. We ridiculed the question that asked whether you preferred carrots raw or cooked, and assumed it was about sex (wasn’t everything?)
But I also remember being asked to agree/disagree with statements such as “Success in life is largely a matter of luck” and “I can control my destiny.” As I understand it, your answer to these indicates your sense of efficacy and likelihood of success. If you think life is largely a matter of luck, you’re out of luck.
But so much of life is determined by luck. You walk along happily for awhile, doing whatever it is you do, and then life comes along and snatches the rug out from under you. The personal calamities: dread disease, business failure, loss of a loved one. The public calamities: hurricane, riot, economic collapse. Any of these will knock you flat.
Wise advisors, such as self-help books and grandmas, say that though you can’t control what happens to you, you can control your response. While some are defeated by fortune, others rally and stand up again, like one of those little dolls with a rounded, weighted bottom. No matter how many times you knock it over, it pops right back up.
So where do we get our optimism, the courage to fail, the will to keep trying? I say pluck is also a product of luck. If we are very fortunate perhaps we are born resilient, but I think for most it is nurture, not nature. And our luck resides in the circumstances of our birth.
I have an image of babies, each set at the beginning of a path. On every path there are hurdles. On some paths there are small, regularly spaced hurdles, and at each early hurdle, hands reaching out to help the child clear the bar, voices raised in praise when she does. On other paths the hurdles are high as a house, and the child is alone. Some rare few of these children - and who knows the source of their strength? - will clamber over and move on, but many more will be defeated.
I used to ask my law students why the homeless victims of hurricanes receive assistance and compassion, while the world scorns the chronically homeless, whose lives were blown awry by abuse, war, illness. And they would reply that the chronically homeless people were responsible for their own situation, and should help themselves. Yet the students knew very well that for some people the deck is stacked from the beginning.
Puzzling over their need to blame the victim, I thought it was hard for them to acknowledge the role of luck in their own success. They wanted to have control. And if they believed they had not earned their many advantages, they would feel guilty. Even more, it was important to believe that the losers had brought their troubles on themselves. Otherwise, what was to prevent the same thing from happening to them?
I’ve had a lovely life, full of friends and lovers, a late and happy marriage, interesting work, adventures, travel, and even economic security. The primary reason is that I’ve been lucky. Of course I’ve met my share of hurdles, and worked hard, but I was lucky to be born into a family that blessed me with enthusiasm, optimism and resilience as well as material well-being.
There were plenty of weeds in the family garden - alcoholism, tyranny, petty snobbery. For me they were hidden by the flowers. My parents assumed I would succeed in school and in life. My father was an optimist until the day he died. He was also overbearing, but because I was the last child, I wasn’t the star of his dreams, which meant I had room to move. My mother was gloomy but loving, and I was very close to her. They were both voracious readers. They had more than enough money, and happily they valued education and experience over stuff, so we had excellent schooling, travel and adventure in our lives.
As one of the lucky ones, I hope to repay my debt to fortune with compassion and appreciation. I should keep my heart open to the one who has not been lucky. I can’t walk a mile in her shoes - she’s wearing them, and only she knows how they hobble, where they pinch. But I should meet her where she is, and help where I can.
And I should appreciate good luck while I have it; it will certainly come and go. I can’t live looking over my shoulder for that figure that will snatch the rug out from under me, but I can rejoice when life is going well. Denise Levertov said it as well as it can be said:
I know this happiness
The looming presences -
great suffering, great fear -
into peripheral vision:
but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:
this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:
this need to dance,
this need to kneel:
in Breathing the Water (1987)
NEXT WEEK: Momma Don't Want No VULGAR
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