January 17, 2013

How to Get Lucky.


I like luck.

I don’t understand it and can’t predict or explain it, but I enjoy courting it and can’t help believing in it.

Philosopher Nicholas Rescher—author of Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life—contends that without luck, life as we know it would be unsustainable, that the randomness of good and bad luck gives life the spice that makes it palatable. As I see it, luck encompasses a lot of other ideas with jazzier labels: divine intervention, extrasensory perception, mindfulness and the will of the universe, to name a few.

You could argue with me that these are all distinctly different principles and that to mash them together is to misunderstand them all and you’d be right enough. But I’m going to do it anyway, because at the end of the day, when the bedside light goes out and you stare at the soft orange glow of the streetlamp on the ceiling, hashing it over, you’re bound to say to yourself how lucky this or that thing was—whether you’re a church-going type, a fatalist, or a sage-burning, meditating, Buddha-loving, place-the-auspicious-green-plant-in-the-southeast-corner-of-the-house-for-wealth sampler type, like me.

Reviewers say that Rescher’s book “offers a realistic view of the nature and operation of luck to help us come to sensible terms with life in a chaotic world.” He interweaves historical examples, from the use of lots in the Bible to Thomas Gataker’s treatise of 1619 on the great English lottery of 1612, from gambling in casinos to playing the stock market. Rescher maintains that “because we are creatures of limited knowledge who do and must make decisions in the light of incomplete information, we are inevitably at the mercy of luck.”

I have a little theory of my own to offer, which is that the more you notice luck, the more of it you find coming toward you.

It’s exactly the same as when I was 15 and my boyfriend drove a brown Cutlass and I suddenly started seeing tenfold more brown Cutlasses driving on the city streets than I ever had before—or since. (This same principle did not, however, apply when my boyfriend two years later drove a black Cadillac hearse as the band mobile for his pals but that’s an understandable exception.)

I had a very lucky moment several years ago when my older sister, Laurie—who was then all hip and childless and living in Manhattan—was visiting and being the good auntie. We were hanging out at my house, which was crawling with kids and commotion as we struggled to corral everybody toward the next planned activity. In the midst of the pandemonium, I heard my niece Charisma, four years old, hollering. I thought it was because she’d been having too much fun with the gang and didn’t want to leave. But in the same instant, I knew I was wrong. I swung around stupidly looking for her. She hollered again. On a lucky instinct, I ran to the window and saw two small bare legs sticking out of our small pond and a cascade of long blond hair splayed across the water’s surface.

I screamed something I can’t remember and sprinted out the front door. My husband Jon bolted for the back door. He got to the pond first, and grabbed Charisma’s soft white legs with his big strong hands and pulled her out and put her into my arms. I carried her in, her wet head pressed against my face. “I want my mama!” she sobbed.

But her mama wasn’t there, she was home with Charisma’s brand-new baby sister and so it was my daughter Sophie and I who helped peel off the sodden clothes and run the shower and wash the pond scum out of those long curls. Later, Charisma drew a picture of herself—a stick figure with a large head, reaching over the rock ledge of the pond for a “pretty thing,” a floating glass bauble we’d placed in the pond for its beauty. She then drew the next frame, in which her mouth was open to signify her call for help when she found herself too far over the edge to pull herself up again.

The weird thing about all this is that to call the bit of water in our yard a pond is a stretch, to say the least. It’s not quite three feet deep and it’s about the circumference of a standard umbrella. Benches and gardens encircle it and birds gather to drink from the fountain that stands within it. In almost 20 years, no one has ever fallen into the pond except Charisma. What I saw out the window the day is scary enough for me to still relive it from time to time.

When that happens—when that vivid memory resurfaces—I try hard to pause to be mindful, once again, of that tremendous good fortune; that incredibly lucky break that formed the hairline divider between tragedy and just another hectic day.

During all the other moments of all the other days, I try (and often fail) to be aware of all times luck saves me: the times I catch myself on that slippery walk instead of falling, or the instance when I didn’t accidentally hit “reply-all” on that embarrassing personal email, or the day I was not after all (despite outrageous traffic) late for the most important meeting of my life. You get the picture. I try to pay attention and feel the magnitude of my thankfulness for all these lucky breaks.

For me, courting luck by giving it attention is just another means of cultivating gratitude. And just as with all those brown Cutlasses when I was 15, the more attention I give to luck, the more often it seems to humble me with its grand surprise.

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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

Asst. Ed: Madison Canary

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