Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What's Luck Got To Do With It?

Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.
- Jean-Paul Sartre

There is a part of me that believes that there is no such thing as luck - that luck amounts to no more then paying attention to the good and ignoring the bad. And yet, I am the first to curse my bad luck when I wake up on race morning greeted by the pounding of rain on the roof, a foot of fresh snow, or sweltering temperatures. I curse my bad luck when an injury creeps into my life uninvited at just the wrong time - at just the wrong damn time, I scream to the heavens! Why now? Why does this always happen to me? It's just not fair. I have the worst luck.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the nature of 'luck' because I'm injured (at what seems like a very bad time) and because my mother is gravely ill. I think runners tend to be a superstitious bunch - Some of us have our pre-race rituals, or we wear special underpants on race day - I've been wearing a C-Prime bracelet that I haven't taken off since qualifying for Boston in May. I always knock on wood when someone asks the dreaded question: "So, are you healthy?". If I am healthy I cringe, say as little as possible, and slink off into the shadows to find some wood to knock on. I am always afraid of dooming things when they are going well.

Now, being injured sucks for any runner but for me, right now, it more than sucks. It feels like a huge, monumental, unfair, and unlucky deal. Right now I'm 17 weeks out from the Boston Marathon and my anal retentive self likes 16 weeks of training. That gives me a little over a week to get all better - and I mean ALL better because anything less will make me nervous. In the past I've gone into marathon training injured and it proved to be an angst filled experience. Maybe it won't get better. Maybe it will just keep getting worse. I don't want to go there, not now, not for Boston.

Luck is also something my Mother is a bit fixated on right now as she continues her battle with very aggressive cancer. She bemoans her lifelong bad luck - and she is adamant that some people are lucky and some are not. She, in her view, is not. There is not a single case of cancer in her family, she points out. She comes from hearty stock and her seven siblings have all lived well into their 80s and 90s. What could explain this anomaly other than good ol' bad luck. When pressed on the subject she will quickly point out the many cases of bad luck that seem to follow her around like her own personal dark cloud, floating ominously above her head.

But in this case, I find myself arguing with her, challenging her - trying to make her see that she's choosing to see the bad only. It takes all my will power not to say to her: Well, at least you weren't born in Bangladesh. At least you haven't suffered the terror of genocide, starvation, etc. But that is little comfort - and the fact is, that there are people, even in Bangladesh, who do not curse their bad luck.

Years and years ago something seemingly unremarkable happened to me that stuck with me in some small but essential way. I was driving along on the Garden State Parkway in my Datsun B210 - It was a classic POS (piece-of-shit) car held together, literally, with Bondo and duct tape. Driving through one of the Oranges I found myself going through a long underpass/tunnel, where you're not allowed to change lanes. In front of me was a pick-up truck with a rack of pipes on top. I had this sudden urge to move out from behind the truck. At the moment I began my illegal lane shift, a pipe came flying straight out, as if shot out of a torpedo launcher, slicing through the air where I had been just 2 seconds earlier. Had I not shifted lanes, I have little doubt that I would have been killed. Was this a instance of good luck? Over the years I've asked myself this question many times. There may be an answer, but I'll never know it.

So when I am feeling particularly doomed, I try to look at all the good things. But it seems that there is much that we can't control. Is that 'luck'? I don't know. There's many things I do not choose. I did not choose my DNA, or where and when I was born. But I do get to choose how I deal with what's been handed to me. Shall I focus on the bad or the good? Wasting your life believing that you have bad luck will do nothing other than create a life filled with bad luck.

Am I lucky or am I unlucky? That really depends on how I view it. If I am feeling unlucky I will notice all the red lights that catch me on my way to work while failing to notice the Red Tail Hawk floating peacefully on an invisible current in the sky. If I am feeling unlucky I will notice the pain in my foot, but I may not notice the sweet smell of my daughter's neck as she hugs me tight. But then I hug her tight, and I am reminded that I am lucky - even though my foot is hurting.

As William James argues in "The Will To Believe", belief creates it's own truth.

Good luck to us all.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Great observation. Sorry your mother is in pain. I hope she regains her health soon.

    As for bad luck in injuries, I am recovering from tendonitis. Was it "bad luck" or overtraining. Perhaps both. I have the advantage (you do not) to refuse signing up for any foot races until fully healed. My patience is growing short. In the meantime, I am focusing on strengthening my weak glutes and hams. Hopefully I can make my own luck.

    Have a great Boston! You've worked so hard to qualify.

  3. Thank you, Caolan. I mean that!

  4. I think it was a golfer, who was challenged about his luck on a particular day who said, "you know, the harder I work, the luckier I get". A lot of truth to that.

    And you know as well as I do, that a 15 week "healthy" training program is better than a 16 week program nursing an injury. Ice or elevate or rest or just walk - but don't force it.

    Wishing your mother a speedy return to health.

  5. I fully agree with the statement that runners tend to be a superstitious lot! I myself have my routine or habits that I must perform- daily before and after my run to ward off "bad luck"! But honestly, I believe in fate. We chose to look at our life and say "My life is filled with much to be thankful for." or we can look at the SAME life and say "My life is filled with nothing but trial and tribulation." The truth? Is both. It's how we LOOK at our lives that changes the perspective. I had the honor of knowing a young woman, who while pregnant with her second child was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Rather than abort, she when through the pregnancy- gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, and got to spend 3 amazing months with her 2 children and husband before she passed away at the age of 23. Did she ever bemoan her lot? No. She was thankful for the chance to be a mother for a second time. I hate to sound cheesy- or corny (yum both sound good lol), but we need to wear our rose colored glasses a lot more in this world.

  6. Not sure if John Nash, the mathematician, said this, or if it was just John Nash, the character in the Beautiful Mind, "I don't believe in luck (long pause as his date is about ready to smack him), but I do believe in assigning value to things (as he lovingly puts the handkerchief in his pocket)."

    So, what value does an elderly person put on life, even if they are sick?

    What value do we put in being slowed down in traffic? I can assign high value because it enables me to take in more of the city I live, or I can assign low value.

    What value do I put in being sensitive to the health of my body (that I can recognize when my body isn't ready to train for a marathon and when it is, not everyone can)?


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