Charmed Life

  Jerome Shea       March 15, 2009      Weekend Wonk

A friend writes, “Ever since some awful hard times early on, Jerry, you really have been a very lucky fellow, as you know.” She is quite right. I will spare you those hard times, if only so that I don’t sound like a whiner. But ever since then I have indeed been wonderfully lucky: in my marriage, in my children, in my career, in my health, and in other ways that haven’t occurred to me yet.

I am one lucky son of a gun.

Which got me thinking about luck, fate, fortune, karma, what-have-you. Thinking of those who, like me, seem to have been blessed with good luck, and those who suffer one calamity after another, those who seem to have been cursed with bad luck. And right off the bat we have touched upon something. “Blessed” suggests an outright gift from the gods (can you really earn good luck?) whereas “cursed” carries an implication that bad luck really is a punishment for something, doesn’t it? So how do we explain those people who are paragons of decency and virtue—as far as we can tell—but who are given one cross to bear after another? In the teenager’s perennial wail, it’s just not fair (well, duh!).

So I don’t think I will get into karma, which, as I crudely understand it, means that you do earn your good luck or your bad luck through your actions, good or bad. Seems to work for Buddhists, but I’ll take a pass, thank you. I do find it interesting, however, that Calvinists believed in a sort of anti-karma. I am talking about the doctrine of predestination, whereby you are destined to heaven or hell right from the start. The gulf between you and God is so vast that your pathetic good works count for nothing. God chooses to save you or He doesn’t. So how do you know if you have been chosen? You know because if God favors you, He will demonstrate that favor in this life. If you have good luck, if you are prosperous (“Live long and prosper,” says Mr. Spock, a secret Calvinist), that is a pretty good indication—not sure, mind you, but pretty good—that God is going to look out for you through eternity, so you can breath a little easier (though you can never, ever, let your guard down). Now that’s unfair! And you wonder how many Puritans went subtly or stark-ravingly mad under that pressure. I have to add another weird twist on the karma business. In grammar school we would sooner or later ask Sister Europenasia, “S’ter, S’ter, how do you explain those really bad people [Al Capone seemed to be a favorite example] who make a lot of money and have fancy cars and clothes and yachts and all that?” Thought we had her there, but sister would patiently explain that even the worst people have done some good in their lives. This was God’s way of rewarding those good deeds—before He sent them to hell for all eternity. Shaky theology, it seems to me, but it did shut us up.

Having said all that, I can’t help but think that as I was hitting my thirties God (white beard, sitting on a cloud, the whole nine yards) said, “That fellow Shea down there? I’ve given him a lot of grief so far. I think he deserves [has earned?] smoother sailing from now on.” We just can’t stop thinking of rewards and punishment, of things somehow evening out. Just that wonderful catch-all, human nature, I suppose.

Of course, I’m hoping for about another twenty years of life, so maybe I am being just a tad premature. The Greeks warned that you should count no man lucky until he is dead, a sentiment expressed, I think, in the Oedipus cycle. Ah, Oedipus. Now there was a guy who did seem to have everything going for him! Maybe I should be waiting for the other shoe to drop, not that it will do me any good. The thought of bad luck, the anticipation of bad luck, the fear of bad luck—cancer, the death of a loved one, dementia—can be a pretty good imitation of bad luck itself!

On the other hand, the Greeks (Edith Hamilton memorably said, “The great tragic artists of the world are four, and three of them are Greek”) remind us that tragedy, bad luck, suffering—call it what you will—is what ennobles and transforms. Good luck is for lightweights. Good luck makes us soft, vulnerable, fragile (I’m sorry, but we lucksters have a right to complain about something!) Adversity makes us grow, teaches us wisdom, tempers us like good steel, and so forth. Or maybe not, maybe it just knocks our pins out from under us, renders us helpless. Should bad luck—real heavy duty bad luck—befall Shea, chances are that he would collapse like a pricked balloon.

So maybe a little bad luck, like an inoculation, is actually good luck? Oy! Knock on wood.

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