February 28th, 2011

A hangover question from the 75% reunion: what’s it all about?

I posed the question in that post about why all four of us from that band are still here and thriving.  Your responses suggested several answers — or, at least, creative ways to think about it. In my own answer to Debbi Mack’s response, I said, “If I learned anything from all this — if I could boil my primary life lesson into a single sentence, it would be this: “Be where the luck is and stay there. Virtually everything good that’s ever happened to me was luck and the talent to spot it when it arrived and try to do whatever was necessary to hold onto it.”

Luck is certainly among the least tangible aspects of our lives.  It goes under all sorts of fancier labels — coincidence, fate, and karma, to name a few — but in my largely nontheological world view, those things come down mostly to luck.

And, when you think about it, we have about as much influence on coincidence, karma, and fate as we do on luck.  Which is to say zero, or close enough to zero as to be functionally indistinguishable from it.

I walked into a classroom at UCLA one night as a guest lecturer in a course on entertainment-industry PR, and my future wife was sitting there.  She might have skipped class — she’d been thinking about it. I might have continued swilling champagne — I was about three-fifths drunk and bordering on late when I came through the door.  But neither of those things happened. The evening changed my life in ways I couldn’t have begun to imagine back there, and it was sheer dumb luck.

A great movie from about 12 years ago, “Run Lola Run,” illustrates this brilliantly.  A young woman in, I think, Berlin, gets a phone call from her boyfriend.  A drug deal has gone wrong; the money he was carrying to the purchase is gone.  If he doesn’t get 100,000 marks within 20 minutes, he’s going to rob a supermarket.

Lola starts to run.  she does everything she can to get the money, and she does, but she’s three seconds too late, and her boyfriend is killed.

We’re back in Lola’s apartment and the phone rings again.  Everything starts over.  This time, when she leaves the apartment, she turns left instead of right.

In all, Lola makes the run three times.  Infinitesimal variations of circumstances decide whether each ends tragically or happily.  (If you haven’t seen the movie, get it.)

I know someone whose sister missed one of the 9/11 planes.  I know, with one degree of separation, someone whose sister was on one of them.  How do you explain that?

I’m not saying that we succeed or fail purely because of luck.  It’s the first part, being where luck is, that’s probably unmanageable and out of our hands.  Staying where luck is, is often a process of patient work, getting better and stronger at what we do, plus the courage to overcome reversals as they arise.  But even then, we’re lucky if all this self-directed progress isn’t terminated by a cell going wonky and spreading through our bodies or our not being prevented by a traffic jam from getting on the wrong plane.

So we can approach life consciously, develop your talents, exercise persistence and discrimination, live a (relatively) blameless life, and then make a left instead of a right, and it all can come tumbling down.  Or we can blunder your way through a patch of poison oak to the end of a rainbow.

It’s probably not healthy to think about it too much.

13 Responses to “”

  1. EverettK Says:

    I think luck surrounds us each and every day, in plethora. It’s a question of making the right choices. My life is littered with an immense amount of “good luck” (right choices at the right moment) and a fair amount of bad luck (screwed the choice). Occasionally it seems to be good or bad beyond the realm of my choice, but one has to wonder…

    re: Run, Lola, Run. Yes, excellent short film! Another along this line is “Sliding Doors” with Gwyneth Paltrow, one of my favorite movies (not because she’s in it, but because of the storyline and the way it was presented). If you’ve not seen it, she plays someone who is fired from her job, and as she’s descending into the subway on the way home, she is delayed VERY slightly on the stairs, and misses catching the train as the doors slide shut. Then they back her up in reverse, and this time she dances down the stairs avoiding the delay and catches the train. The rest of the movie follows the two story lines and depicts how the two ‘lives’ diverge from that small incident. Wonderfully done, well worth seeking out if you’ve never seen it.

    A book that I love that is sort of like Run Lola Run, is REPLAY by Ken Grimwood. It’s sort of like the movie “Groundhog Day”, but written in 1988 (preceding the movie), and rather than being a day that repeats, it’s a large portion of the main character’s life. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that it’s been released on Kindle this past September, and paper copies can be found on Amazon and abebooks.com.

    And I actually think it IS healthy to think about it, Tim. A life examined is one of the best ways to improve the remainder of said life.

    And thanks for sharing the very brief mention of how you and Munyin met. I’ve meaning to ask you if you were ever going to write any about that, or if you and Munyin considered that too private for public exhibition.

  2. Tom Logan Says:

    Yes. However, people can make their own luck, can take advantage of the luck that befalls them (or not), blame their rotten life on bad luck (not their fault), and develop the intelligence to recognize luck and use it. I suspect that your life with your wife, while initiated by “sheer dumb luck,” was followed by an intelligent, thoughtful pursuit. I have had my share of good luck in my life, and bad, have recognized it for what it was and made the most of it. Thanks for the blog.

  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    A friend of mine once, “Fate presents us with choices.” Or to put it differently, people, things, and events show up in our lives, and what we do with them is up to us-to use our talents, judgments, and good will to “move it forward.” Jung used the word synchronicity-as you’ve discussed here-to talk about the strangeness of having things go right when we do the right thing, but you can’t MAKE that happen. It just does. He also talked about moving the dream forward, which can be very hard work. So the wisest thing is to do is to live well and wisely, except for sometimes, and to be open to what experience has to offer. We can’t think about this all the time; we wouldn’t be living then. Life is a dance-and to paraphrase some one else-the only one that is. Just a bunch of thoughts your blog evoked, thanks, everybody.

  4. EverettK Says:

    As Tom alludes to (and I should have mentioned in my first reply), attitude is really a large part of the difference between “good luck” and “bad luck” (or “no luck”). A nice positive attitude will often carry you through to the ‘right’ choice, where a negative attitude will often do just the opposite.

    But attitude, after all, is a choice. Perhaps the most important one.

  5. Sharai Says:

    Another question to ponder: Why is it that you have done so many things in years past to kill as many brains cells as fast as possible, yet your brain still works so incredibly well, better than most?!!!!!!!!! She asks timidly with love and affection.

  6. Laren Bright Says:

    I personally think luck is just an interpretation. It’s how we explain why events turned out a particular way when we don’t have high enough altitude to know the real reason.

    But for your original question: What’s it all about? I know the answer to that. What’s it all about? Alfie.

  7. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Everett-firstly, how can someone who looks so nice and friendly seem to be so snarky on occasion ;-)? Secondly, you are right on, attitude is the key, but first you have to be aware of how you are approaching something. Sometimes it is hard to come out of the snit or mood, or a lifetime of entrenched belief systems in order to make a better life or be successful. And, of course, you have to “want” to. 😉 .And, Tim, Sharai asks a good question, she said respectfully, and admiringly. OK, hit the limit.

  8. EverettK Says:

    Lil: The snarkiness, no doubt, comes from being raised in a family where my father, his sister, and three brothers were masters of “dry wit” and snarkiness. You have to learn the tools of your social circle if you’re going to survive. 🙂

    And as one of Tim’s heroes would say, “You think I look nice and friendly?” he asked, sitting up straighter, a warmth settling somewhere between the ground and his self-esteem. 😉

    And I agree, Lil, CHOOSING to give up on a good snit or anger or depression can be one of the hardest things there is to learn to do! And yes, entrenched belief systems from our up-bringing can make it even harder. It reminds me of a country-western (of which I listen to very little…) song that was sung by Kathy Mattea:

    We’re all just seeds, in God’s hands.
    We start the same, but where we land
    Is sometimes fertile soil, and sometimes sand.
    We’re all just seeds, in God’s hands.

    I hand-wave the “God’s hands” part, as I’m not a Christian believer, but I do love the image the song brings to mind, regarding how we don’t have a lot of choice where we start. But we DO have a choice where we go from there. It’s harder for some than for others, and thereby hangs many a great novel.

  9. Debbi Says:

    “Run Lola Run” is a really awesome movie.

    When you come down to it, we have only so much control. Some things are imposed on us, and we choose how to respond. It’s a bit simplistic to say that we can determine our fates completely, because there’s always an X factor (accident, sickness, disability, death, etc.) that could intervene. Not that you were saying that. I’m just saying. 🙂

    That said, I do believe that we can make our own luck through taking positive steps toward a definable goal, if that makes any sense.

  10. Jaden Says:

    I think about this sort of thing often, Tim. I’ve been blessed in so many ways and feel lucky to have met so very many people like yourself who have mentored and befriended me. I agree with some of the others that a large part of luck is seeing the good things when they arrive, making a conscious effort to do the best you can with them, and being grateful for them. The more grateful we are for what we have, the more opportunities and blessings we see.

    As for the random wrong left turn or the treacherous cell, I try not to think about them, mostly because I’m a coward at heart.

  11. Larissa Says:

    It’s amazing what happens when you get everyone thinking about their positions in life and what led them there! Great conversation! (c: I have to admit with Jaden-I don’t think a whole lot about the “what if’s” because I’m not comfortable with stakes that high just yet. I am working on that, however, because I do believe that a lot of where we end up is where we believe we will end up. And a gnawing, lingering fear of something that sometimes be mistaken for a belief. (So many religions use fear-mongering…)

    Life can be, in some terms, a self-fulfilling prophecy and while you have to be aware and respect the fact that you could miss your step, take the wrong plane or leave your keys inside in the wrong parking lot at the wrong time, that exact potential of the unknown should make us more grateful for the moments we do have. Which all sounds a bit Hallmark-y but there is something to be said for sending out a Thank You vibe to the ether and all the people who have helped us along the way.

    (c: Great post as always.

  12. Rachel Brady Says:

    I like this post and thread. It seems to me that the likelihood of luck is higher for those who choose to show up for life. Just by going “out” and doing “stuff” where “people” are… opportunities open everywhere.

    “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” -Seneca

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    You guys don’t need me. I think from now on, I’ll just throw the ball into the air and let you all bat it back and forth while I preen in front of my three-way mirror. Working on a certain fall of hair that takes twenty years off my right profile. After I’ve got that nailed, I’ll go to work on always presenting my right profile.

    Where was I?

    It seems to me that you guys have taken this much father, and thought it through more completely, than I did in the original post.

    Everett, I think we need luck even when we do the tiniest things. We handle sharp knives daily, we make left turns in cars, we cross streets, we confide in people, we decide whether to be flattered by a publisher’s offer for a book (low advance) or go ahead and pub it ourselves as an e-book, etc. etc, etc. In some situations — the sharp knife, for example — the potential upside is minimal and the potential downside could be enormous. That’s why we have the concept of “careful” in addition to the concept of luck. I guess relatively conscious living is the best solution here, as it is for practically everything else. Not easy to maintain, though.

    Re: the movies, the Koreans are crazy about these themes and make movie after movie about it, some of them wonderful.

    Hi, Tom — I agree that we need to make an effort to stay in the luck when we encounter it, but in a relationship it’s also luck (I think) that the person whom you met through dumb luck is willing to reciprocate your efforts to take full advantage of the meeting. I’m writing right now about unworkable love — a relationship between two people, each of whom has replaced the other with a wholly inaccurate fantasy –so I’m thinking about this a lot.

    Lil, thanks for my new credo: “The wisest thing is to do is to live well and wisely, except for sometimes, and to be open to what experience has to offer.” Spot on. The “except for sometimes” is brilliant.

    Sharai, it’s because I have friends to help me along the way and to remind me of all the stuff I’ve committed to and then forgotten. And who stimulate the better parts of my nature.

    Laren, I agree that we lack the proper elevation, and I know that most spiritual odysseys are in pursuit of that elevation. Karma has always seemed to me to be the best explanation of luck or fate, but it’s nothing I can work with, if you know what I mean — I’m helpless in the face of karma. For all functional purposes, it’s indistinguishable from luck.

    Lil, the question is how someone as snarky as Everett can look so nice and friendly. When you realize that this is a guy who can critique a marginal observation in dialogue that water conducts electricity with this: “WATER is not a conductor. It’s only IMPURE water that will conduct electricity, because of the ionized materials that are dissolved in the water.” Okay, so he’s right. But I mean . . . Okay, so he’s right.

    Hi, Debbi — I was actually saying just that — that at times all we do to hang onto our luck and to move forward can be negated once and for all by chance, luck, karma, fate, whatever you want to call it. All we can do is make those positive steps toward a definable goal as though we are going to be allowed to continue the progress, because otherwise we never move at all.

    Hi, Jaden – No, it doesn’t make much sense about the malign aspects of chance or whatever we want to call it because there’s not much of anything we can do about them anyway. Take care of your health and you can still get hit by a car. As they used to say in “The Fugitive, “But in the darkness Fate moved its heavy hand.” Or something like that.

    Hi, Riss — dead right, life can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s difficult, when you live like Charlie Sheen, to describe landing in the hospital three times in six months as “luck,” but that’s what he did yesterday. I think we need to do all the positive things we can do: make goals, show up, do our best, take care of each other, seek fulfillment on several levels, and leave it to the amulet we wear or our collection of four-leaf clovers to ward off that hope-defeating stroke of bad luck.

    Hey, Rachel — totally agree. Do it and do it as well as you can. Be aware when things have turned lucky. Wear a hard hat in a construction zone.

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