The word ‘lucky’ has been coming up a lot lately. This is great, because I am a big believer in luck. It seems to me, though, that this is a term that benefits from careful definition. Most of the time, the way I hear it used, what people are referring to is really good fortune rather than luck.
‘Luck’ was me getting COVID-19 the one and only time I went out in six weeks.
Oh, I agree, it was definitely BAD luck! Luck just the same.
There are elements of luck that we can influence, and areas that we can’t. For instance, shortly after my hubby and I moved down here, we saw Jermaine Jackson at the grocery store. That was luck. We had no idea that he was in the area or that he was promoting a charity campaign, which is probably the only reason that a Real Celebrity (TM) would be at a grocery store in person.
The only part of this encounter that we really influenced on our end was renting a house within jogging distance of the Hollywood sign.
This is where the distinction between ‘luck’ and ‘good fortune’ comes in.
Luck has everything to do with timing. It’s the chance encounter, the coincidence, the surprise connection.
Good fortune tends to be something that’s built up over time or the compounding of significant effort.
Think of the Olympics. Nobody ever won a gold medal by luck. I think we can all agree there.
On the other hand, it is great good fortune whenever an Olympian makes it to the podium, because it means they’ve managed to avoid any incidents that would prevent them from training that hard.
The torn ligaments, the bad case of mono, the concussion... Any number of things could happen to keep someone from performing at top level during that one year in four.
Bad luck, right?
One of the differences between Olympians and the rest of us is whether they would let something like a terrible injury put a permanent stop to their sporting career.
I was very surprised to discover, when I suddenly developed an interest in endurance sports in my thirties, that every athlete I met had a history of serious injuries. At the same time, everyone I ever met who was 100 pounds overweight or more would blame it on... an injury. In both cases, there might be a “when I blew out my knee” or “after I hurt my back” or “after my surgery.” But one of them would be telling the story while racking weights.
Part of good fortune, then, is what story we build after something awful happens.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the summer, since this was the year that I “lucked out” and got COVID.
There is an interesting visualization exercise that anyone can do, which is to tell two separate versions of your life story. Make one version as bad as possible, with the worst spin on everything that ever happened to you and emphasis on only the negative. Then do another version with as much Disney spin on it as possible, focusing only on the positive. It will sound like two completely different people - yet both are technically true.
Let’s see, we can do one about... Stephen Hawking.
Stephen Hawking was born during World War II and grew up under austerity in England, where he had to eat British food. When he was in college, he collapsed, and learned that he had motor neuron disease. He was just 21 when he was given only two years to live. His health deteriorated until he was confined to a wheelchair, and he couldn’t even speak anymore.
This would be a great story for a GoFundMe, right?
Of course the other version is that Stephen Hawking was one of the most famous scientists of his age, who outlived his prognosis by decades, had a family and a dazzling career, traveled the world and even went to space, contributed to multiple fields, and of course got to prove doctors wrong over and over again.
Two stories, both true.
Okay, so... was Stephen Hawking lucky, or unlucky? Was his life fortunate, or was it not?
This is a question with no right answer. It’s really a question of temperament. The real question is not what you think about a celebrity’s life; it’s how you answer this question about your own, one true personal life.
I can tell two versions of my 2020, and both of course are true.
Version One: The year started out badly. My husband almost lost his sight in one eye, I missed my big opportunity to teach my first workshop at a big conference, then we both got the flu and had to put our dog down. Then I got COVID-19 and then I had pneumonia on my birthday. My health has never been the same and in fact I’m in the middle of what seems to be a week-long stomach bug as I write this.
Version Two: The year started out great. We didn’t realize how lucky we were when we decided not to book any trips this year. My husband miraculously had no damage to his vision after his eye injury. We had no idea what a blessing it was that we were able to help our dog cross over before COVID, when the clinic was still open. If we were off by even a month... Then I got COVID but all our friends made it through okay, no hospitalizations, and my hubby somehow managed not to get sick at all. Even though I was sick, when my dream job came open I was able to apply for it, and I got the position! We’re both able to work at home and stay safe. Might be a long haul, it’s nice to have something to do to keep busy.
Two stories, both true.
A technique at play in Version Two is the ‘counterfactual’ statement. This is a double-edged sword. It’s easy to use counterfactuals to delude oneself. They are helpful, though, in reconstructing and reframing situations that may not be tolerable, much less feel fortunate in any way.
What’s missing from Version One of my story is any acknowledgement of the good fortune that is still in place. We have a happy marriage, we have health insurance, it was an eye injury and not, say, a sucking chest wound or a rattlesnake bite. Any list of grievances and sorrows is incomplete, not a fully accurate account, if it focuses exclusively on the negative.
Good fortune is good for everyone. It’s not a zero-sum game. Being in a fortunate position allows us to reach out and help others. At minimum, at least we’re not someone else’s crisis. (See, another counterfactual!) Distinguishing between ‘luck’ and ‘good fortune’ allows us to compile a thorough list of our resources and advantages, which is the first step to solving our problems. Ours, and then maybe others’ as well.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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