Friday Takeaway: Fortune’s Fool

Published: 9/7/2018 10:11:11 AM

I bought a lottery ticket a few months ago. It was foolish of me. Playing the lottery strikes me as a waste of time. It represents an investment on chance with a potential reward that is infinitesimal. Still, I got the urge while at a convenience store. I wanted to feel I was officially part of a larger gamble.

The woman behind the counter, who knows me, looked at me in disbelief. She asked if I was sure.

I told myself: you don’t need to do this to lose money. There are plenty of other more creative ways. I then forgot to look at the winning number.

Needless to say, I’m far from your typical lotto player. Yet I should feel lucky the lottery exists, for I am one of its beneficiary, albeit remotely. My grandfather, a penniless Polish immigrant who arrived to Mexico in the 1920s, got a couple of unbelievable breaks early on. The first was that a stranger gave him a bunch of new shoe laces, which he proceeded to sell. The second break is that he used the money to buy a lottery ticket and he won. That success allowed him to find his path.

My grandfather died before I was five. My father, whenever he tells me this story, comments that life itself is an investment on chance: No matter how much we believe to be in control of our fate, truth is — irrevocably — that it’s the other way around.

I admire those who buy lottery tickets on a regular basis. I also feel pity for them. They are wasting their money, except obviously for the winner, who they collectively help to fund.

Aside from my grandfather, I have met through the years a handful of small winners. And a big one: one of my son’s delightful pre-school teachers, who became a multi-millionaire. Good for her: chance was on her side.

I confess not to know how to define the word “chance.” The Oxford English Dictionary offers a banquet of dissatisfying definitions, among them “the possibility of something happening” and “an opportunity to do or achieve something.” To me chance is connected with how the Greeks saw their own journey: a series of random acts shaped by capricious forces designed to shape character.

In the face of adversity, what do we do? We either toughen up or bend. Being tough is a sign of success, even when we fail. Being frail is seen as allowing destiny to have the upper hand.

In other words, we might want to believe a higher power shapes all things but most likely is the opposite: What rules Nature as well as Nurture is the absence of any obvious intention or cause.

Many of us want to defy that absence by coming up with supernatural explanations, such as a divine presence. After all, humans want to be in control. Or else, they want to know that someone else is. Not only religion but science, education, and politics are all strategies of control. The objective is to minimize chance and be masters of our own domain. In his very 19th-century way, Ralph Waldo Emerson thought that shallow men believe in luck or circumstance, whereas strong men believe in cause and effect. Call it an illusion, or else a delusion. Proof of it is that not getting what one wants might actually be a strike of luck.

Last night, by chance I was rereading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), about his ordeal in the Spanish Civil War. At one point, he writes: “No one I met at this time — doctors, nurses, practicantes, or fellow-patients — failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all.”

Orwell joined the brigades by choice. He was against fascism and supported democratic causes. Once in Catalonia, Orwell was left to chance.

His comment suggests that luck presents itself in gradations: excellent, good, shitty, and so on. A lucky guy is usually a person who defies the odds, apparently being rewarded by chance. An unlucky one is unfairly punished by fortuitous occurrences. I have a friend who personifies the latter: no matter how much he tries — and he does try forcefully — he is a magnet of bad luck. When he buys a brand new car, it is always defective. He catches a virus no one else does. And whenever he puts money in the stock market, a series of unexpected events lead to the collapse of his investment.

In Act III, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, in the fight with Mercutio, Benvolio and Tybalt, Romeo calls himself “fortune’s fool.” Madly in love, is he in command of the actions his passion is leading him to? He is an extreme. But honestly, we all are—and aren’t.

A while after I purchased the lottery ticket, I went back to the same convenience store. This time I needed to buy some milk. When she saw me, the woman behind the counter said to me, in astonishment, that one of the lotto tickets she had recently sold hit the spot.

She added: “I think it was bought the same day you got yours.”


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