Is luck for real? What does it mean to say that we are “lucky to be alive”?
Events both small and large may be thought of as lucky, from a day at the beach to the existence of life on the planet. But luck at both levels has, I think, less to do with events themselves than with our gratitude for a benign surprise.
First, a poet’s experience of luck. “Lucky Life” is about the beneficence Gerald Stern finds on a summer day at the beach. (Warning: excerpting chunks of any poem does not do it justice.)
Lucky life isn’t one long string of horrors
and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows….
My dream is I’m walking through Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
and I’m lost on South Main Street. I am trying to tell,
by memory, which statue of Christopher Columbus
I have to look for, the one with him slumped over
and lost in weariness or the one with him
vaguely guiding the way with a cross and globe in
one hand and a compass in the other….
Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?
Will you drown out my scream?
Will you let me rise through the fog?
Will you fill me with that old salt feeling?
Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?…
Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky the waves are cold enough to wash out the meanness.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.
The relief brought by the waves is lucky and cherished because the speaker doesn’t know for sure if he will experience it, even though he has in years past. There is no certainty about what the waves “will do for” him or not do. Their soothing effect is not something the speaker can bring about or create. The waves must do it. And they do. Stern finds “the same cleanliness,” and he feels lucky.
On a more vast and impersonal scale, for some scientists, life—the existence of living things—is lucky. In the Cambrian period 540 million years ago, great numbers of unique fossils were preserved, the remains of a wide variety of new species. Almost all of these species disappeared quickly, except for the few vertebrates from which most animals today, including humans, are descended.
In The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, Donald Prothero recaps the argument of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould that these Cambrian specimens “underscored the importance of contingency, lucky accidents of life that determine how all the events that follow will pay out….Each time you replay the tape of life’s history, it comes out differently.” Asteroids, volcanic eruptions, other sources of extinction all had a role in the survival of some species and the disappearance of others. Survival of the fittest was not the only player. “The modern world is an improbable, lucky accident, one of millions of possible ways in which the scenario of life could have progressed.”
It’s easy to fault this argument, however. Some evolutionary events may seem accidental because we can’t know all their immediate causes, but any event is caused by prior events of some kind all the way down to the subatomic level. We can imagine many alternate evolutionary replays, but we can’t really know how variable any of them would be—or if they would be variable at all. But it’s understandable that we might think of the unfolding of the modern organic world as lucky. It has, after all, produced us.
Luck has little to do with causality or randomness, as we like to claim. It has everything to do with our surprise, of the kind that Stern and Gould express, that the stern necessities of the universe sometimes fall in our favor.