I’m not superstitious by nature, I’m too much of a rational materialist for that sort of thing. Math and science have more impact on my mind than rabbit’s feet and black cats. I was born on a Friday the 13th (November 1959) so I tend to think of it as my lucky day. But luck is like beauty as it’s in the eye of the beholder. If wildfires wipe out your neighborhood but leave your house standing, that’s good luck for you and bad luck for your neighbors. So I prefer to think in terms of random variation.
If you hit .400 for a month you stand a good chance of hitting .200 in a different month. Guys don’t hit .400 for a season very often and they don’t hit .200 for a season very often, either. They tend to swing back-and-forth between those extremes and even out somewhere north or (mostly) south of .300 for the year. That’s random variation. If you bat ten times in any weekend series and hit five balls as hard as you can you might wind up with five hits or five outs. It’s not entirely up to you or your skill level. Once the ball leaves the bat you have no control over it and the baseball gods take over. That’s random variation.
We don’t like random variation. We like to think we make our own luck. That’s true to some degree. A batter has to practice and keep improving his skills, and he has to make good decisions in the games he plays. He has to swing at pitches he can hit and he has to make solid contact. But he can do all that and still go 0-for-10 and be the goat.
In America if you are down on your luck you don’t get much sympathy. Poor people are considered weak and foolish. Their lot is their own doing and has nothing to do with luck. If they were just smarter or worked harder they would see their lives improve. The American success ethic has no place for randomness. You are a winner or you are a loser and that’s that.
But nature is not like that. And we humans are as much a part of nature as the birds and the fishes and the trees. When a volcano erupts and spews gas and lava over the landscape some living things get buried and some escape. That’s mostly a random phenomenon. The village or forest that gets immolated is not lacking in courage, fortitude, brains, or heart. It’s just unlucky. Your genetic package is not under your control. The assortment you get from your parents is the result of random variation, the outcome is not anyone’s doing.
With so much randomness around you’d think we’d be more focused on process and less focused on outcomes. But we are an outcome-oriented people. We like to assign credit and blame for things even if those things are too big for any one person to get the credit or the blame. Presidents get credit for a good economy or blame for a poor one but they may have nothing to do with it either way. Economies are very big systems with a lot of inputs and despite all the Nobel Prizes folks really don’t understand them. It’s not science as you can’t run proper experiments and thus you can’t test your hypotheses. And when economists get tangled up with politicians all bets are off. Politics is about as irrational a business as humans can come up with and people who are good at it know that feelings and attitudes are way more important than facts.
Facts are over-rated anyway. We are believing and doubting creatures. We believe some things and doubt others and most of the time it has little to do with actual events. We are products of our upbringing and environment and it is really hard to see the world in any other way but the way we’ve always seen the world. Prejudice, or perhaps I should say bias, is more important than objectivity. In fact objectivity is impossible for humans, as no matter how hard we try at least some of our preconceived notions will be part of our world view.
So what is one to do? I think the key is to recognize our inability to see the facts in a situation and accept that we are opinionated as hell. What we can do is try on some of those other opinions and try to see where they come from. They come from somewhere, they are not entirely random or without foundation. If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes you might see the world a little differently than you did before and that is, in my mind, progress. I think the most beautiful thing in the world is empathy. When you can feel what another person might be feeling even if you’ve not had the experiences of that other person you become a larger version of yourself. You enrich your own humanity.
Empathy can only come about through humility. We have to recognize our own weaknesses and limitations. We have to accept that sometimes it is luck that gave us what we have and not our checklist of virtuous behavior. The mystic believes that god is in everyone and that anyone who accepts that fact cannot hate another person or be indifferent to their suffering because that would be an affront to god. I think that might be the hardest thing in the world, to see god in everyone. Too hard for most of us I expect.
For us ordinary mortals, those of us without the necessary spiritual equipment to see god everywhere, we could try something a little easier. How about seeing that the process is more important than the outcome? That random variation doesn’t discriminate and thus we are all subject to it. That bad luck could be just around the corner no matter who you are, and that most of us don’t “deserve” it when it happens. How about letting go of opinions? That’s all they are, opinions. They aren’t universal truths or bits of wisdom or guidelines for ethical living. They are just opinions. We love our opinions and think they define us. They don’t. They come and they go and we change our minds and then we rail at others for changing theirs. Seems pretty stupid, don’t you think?
One thing I know is true: we are all the same. Forty-six chromosomes made out of the same stuff, DNA. We are different, the DNA says that too, but the differences are not as great as the similarities. That’s one of those things worth keeping: what divides us is a lot less than what we have in common. That’s biology, man, and you can’t argue with that.