La dea fortuna è cieca
Luck is profoundly influential yet impossible to fully conceptualize.
I hate helicopters. And I’ve always thought that those helicopter tours are fucking stupid too. The ones that fly you over the Grand Canyon or the Hoover Dam or the cliffs in Maui, or the ones that weave you in and out of the fucking thousands of skyscrapers in New York City. I’ve never understood why somebody would want to do that. Sounds miserable, and terrifying.
I’ve only ever taken a single helicopter ride, but I was too young to remember. Nobody remembers anything from the day they were born, of course, so consider me a shoddy narrator trying to relay a story consisting entirely of second-hand details.
I made it to 26 weeks before the doctors had no choice but to deliver me. My mother tells me they squeezed another 10 days or so out of her until finally, on January 9th, 1995, they decided they could not wait any longer. I think at one point they even had her upside down.
I was born weighing 1 pound 10 ounces, or 737 grams. I was roughly 12 inches long. I was one of those babies that fit inside the palm of a hand. In the United States, where I am lucky enough to have been born, thousands of babies a week are born early enough to be considered very preterm1. A baby like this needs to be put inside of an incubator for all kinds of reasons (oxygen, temperature control, etc.) and for me that meant needing to be airlifted to another hospital. On January 9th, 1995, I took my first and only helicopter ride.
Some time after descending upon the helipad at hospital #2, the priest from the neighboring Catholic church arrived and baptized me with a cotton ball. I think about this often. I hope to be a parent someday, but hopefully not a parent that has to do anything like the quick and dirty back-of-the-napkin math that convinces you to bring the priest and his holy water into the NICU.
Because of all of this, I consider myself to be a de-facto lucky person (and this is without taking into account any further supporting evidence I have from the subsequent 27 years of my life, of which there is plenty). I have an infinite number of ways to slice just this story alone into a set of convincing and provocative statements to help me conceptualize how lucky I am. I try to run through this exercise often.
This 2015 study puts extremely premature infants (< 28 weeks) and extremely low birth weight infants (< 1000 grams) “at high risk for death and disability with 30–50% mortality” and survivors at 20–50% risk of morbidity. I did not die and I have no such morbidities, that I’m aware of at least.
A 2016 study shows more a modest mortality rate of 11.2% for babies born at 26 weeks, but even then: there is literally nothing for which I would play Russian Roulette with a 10-chamber gun right now. Never in a million years.
Or consider this 2012 report instead, which highlights the inequalities in survival rates globally: high-income countries see the same mortality rates at 24 weeks that low-income countries do at 32 weeks. I was born in the United States, lucky me.
Even then, it is still hard for me to really do anything about this. I can spend all day coming up with eye-opening statistics and still struggle to fully conceptualize how lucky I am. It is is hard for me to feel like I am not taking my mere existence for granted. Sometimes I feel like I will never wake up, no matter how much cold water I splash on my face every morning.
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On the other hand, this may simply be the nature of luck. Luck, both good and bad, is profoundly influential in everyday life yet extremely hard to conceptualize.
History is filled with examples of this. Consider a favorite example of mine, the life of Hannah Arendt: German political philosopher and author, “widely considered to be one of the most influential political theorists of the 20th century”. She is arrested by the Gestapo in Berlin, serves eight days in prison and is then released, flees Germany for France, is interned in Camp Gurs, escapes with two hundred other women, and finally flees to the United States where she receives aid and works as a housekeeper—all before writing a single one of her greatest works. She dies before she is able to finish The Life of the Mind.2
There are many more stories3 like4 this5 (which I’ve footnoted in an attempt to stay focused) but I’d be remiss without mentioning a more striking example, one that has probably changed me forever: Cole Summers.
Cole Summers was operating under a pseudonym—his real name was Kevin Cooper.
Kevin was a 14 year old author and entrepreneur with the entire world ahead of him, a boy chasing a better future for himself, his family, and the world with a fervor and zeal that honestly I’m not sure I had ever seen before. Not at that age, or from somebody in those circumstances, at least.
Kevin lived in the middle of the desert in Utah with his father, a disabled veteran, his mother, who cannot work due to the attention his dad requires, and his brother. Spend the hour or so that it takes to read Kevin’s book, titled Don’t Tell Me I Can’t, and understand what Kevin’s life was like: a complete and total repudiation of his circumstances with an incredible work ethic and a remarkable sense of optimism. He operated a 350 acre ranch, bred rabbits and sold them for meat, fully renovated a rundown house, and had devised an entire plan to save the depleting aquifers in the Great Basin Desert. He was only 14 years old!
Tragically, we lost Kevin to a kayaking accident. Bad luck. I find myself very deeply frustrated by this. I cannot imagine how his family feels. It is not fair, he did not deserve it (nobody does), and we lost somebody who was absolutely set on leaving this world better off than he found it.
Kevin’s story is two-fold: one of relentless optimism in the face of a complete and total absence of good luck as well as, sadly, a tragedy cut short by an extraordinary amount of bad luck. His story6 stands up there with all of the other big names mentioned above and cited throughout; every single one of these stories can teach us something about how to respond to and understand luck, both good and bad.
How should we think about and respond to luck?
I don’t really know, I think that’s why I find myself writing this. This is me trying to wake myself up by splashing some very cold water on my face, on all of our faces, I guess.
I don’t think it is possible to fully conceptualize the role that luck, both good and bad, has played across all of history and still plays today as all of our lives unfold in realtime.
There is too much luck inherent to being human: where one is born, to what parents, in what time period, whether or not you’re born into slavery or war or plague, whether or not a mass shooter makes it into your elementary school classroom, whether or not you live a perfectly healthy life or contract a rare disease. The mere fact that human life exists at all. These numbers cannot be run. It is turtles all the way down.
Luck is everywhere. Life is full of black swans, lucky breaks, and near-misses. We may not be able to understand the full implications of this but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it either.
I think what I’m trying to say is that the least we can do is make an honest attempt to appreciate luck. Perhaps respond to bad luck with intention like Kevin did, or recognize good luck with clarity and purpose, or maybe show a bit of compassion for those who have not been so fortunate.
He drew out all his savings and went on a drinking-bout that ended in another month's imprisonment; after that he went to work in the sewers. Nothing would induce Henri to talk. If you asked him why he worked in the sewers he never answered, but simply crossed his wrists to signify handcuffs, and jerked his head southward, towards the prison. Bad luck seemed to have turned him half-witted in a single day.
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
A normal pregnancy is 40 weeks, a preterm pregnancy is considered anything earlier than 37 weeks, and very preterm is considered anything earlier than 32 weeks. My understanding is that every week counts.
Alexander Fleming: Scottish physician and microbiologist who discovered Penicillin—the world’s first broadly effective antibiotic substance—returns to his office after a holiday with family in Suffolk to find that he had left some inoculated staphylococci on culture plates “on a bench in a corner of his laboratory.” He notices that one of the cultures is contaminated with a fungus and then realizes that “colonies of staphylococci immediately surrounding the fungus had been destroyed”, to which he says “That’s funny”. The fungus is later found to have come from the room below. (Source)
Ernest Hemingway: American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist. In 1954, Hemingway almost dies after two plane crashes on successive days. In the first accident, the plane “strikes an abandoned utility pole and ‘crash lands in heavy brush’”, leaving him with a head wound. The following day, on the way to a hospital, his plane (a different one) explodes while taking off and leaves him with “burns and another concussion… serious enough to cause leaking of cerebral fluid”. Later that year, he is awarded the Nobel Prize. Two years later, in 1956, while in Paris and after having been bedridden for an entire year, “he was reminded of trunks he had stored in the Ritz Hotel in 1928 and never retrieved”. This goes on to spur an intense period of activity for him that lasts for the next three years where he “finished A Moveable Feast; brought True at First Light to 200,000 words; added chapters to The Garden of Eden; and worked on Islands in the Stream.” (Source)
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt: 26th President of the United States who was famously “sickly and asthmatic as a youngster, and had to sleep propped up in bed or slouching in a chair during much of his early childhood.” Upon graduating from Harvard, a doctor diagnoses him with heart problems and suggests that he “find a desk job and avoid strenuous activity”. He ignores this advice and instead chooses to live and espouse a strenuous life. He boxes regularly (even as President) until he suffers a blow that detaches his retina and leaves him blind in his left eye. In 1912, he is shot from seven feet away but ends up surviving because the bullet ends up “lodged in his chest after penetrating his steel eyeglass case and passing through a 50-page-thick single-folded copy of the speech… which he was carrying in his jacket”. Since he is not coughing blood, he concludes he is fine and proceeds to deliver “a 90 minute speech with blood seeping into his shirt.” (Source)