On Luck

I used to walk through the park behind my old place a lot. Every time I would have to get groceries, I would take the green route and enjoy the sweet smell of grass while, occasionally, whipping out my phone to catch some Pokémon. This all changed when a gaggle of geese almost attacked me, twice, and triggered my fear of birds. I will not bore you with the whole story (and those who know the full story: my apologies for retelling it all the time), but it all boils down to this: I thought this gaggle of geese was going to kill me. 

This fear of mine has landed me on the Wikipedia page containing a list of the most curious and unusual deaths multiple times. An analysis of the deaths listed there made me realize that plenty of people have met their ends in particularly curious ways. 

For example, you are probably familiar with Tennessee Williams, the playwright who wrote the iconic A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams died in 1983 after accidentally choking on a plastic bottle cap. You read that right, he did not listen to the countless number of mothers screaming at their children not to put bottle caps in their mouths because it might kill them. In his defense, Williams was, according to the Wikipedia page, using the cap to ingest an antidepressant.

Another incident listed on this page involves the deaths of three people and a poodle. The story goes that in 1988, in the Caballito neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, a poodle called Cachy fell down 13 floors and hit a 75-year-old woman, who instantly died from the blow. Another woman, aged 46, wanted to have a closer look and walked over, only to get hit by a bus and die as well. A third person, unidentified and male, witnessed the whole scene and died of a heart attack. Coincidence? Apparently, presumably, allegedly, etc. 

This is not the only incident involving an animal. Multiple people on multiple occasions have been killed by pythons. In 2005, a man died from injuries caused by sodomy with a stallion. In 2009, a 19-year-old Canadian folk singer was fatally attacked by coyotes. In 2013, a Belarusian fisherman bled to death after a beaver bit him. Heraclitus of Ephesus was presumably devoured by dogs. And like that, there are many more fatalities caused by animals listed on this page. To point out the obvious: I am not on it [1].  

For some reason, scrolling through this Wikipedia page always gives me a sense of peace. It makes me feel more comfortable with my fear of being killed by geese. Because, let’s be honest here, again, I would not survive if I were to be attacked by 9 geese. The other thing this page does for me is allow me to think about the idea we call luck. Everyone whose death is listed on this page would be called unlucky for dying in a curious and unusual way. Capitalism even found a way to make money off of all these poor people in the shape of a show called “Curious and Unusual Deaths”[2].

Luck, that is today’s topic. What is luck? What makes someone lucky or unlucky? How do some people always get lucky, and others always unlucky? The idea of luck recurs every time I watch a Korean variety show called “Running Man”[3]. Most cast members have been baptized as either inherently lucky or inherently unlucky. Their luck is immediately visible in the games they play. Of course, this could be scripted to create comedic effect, but that does not take away the fact that something as arbitrary as luck is being valued enough to play an explicit role in the show. There are no personality traits or physical traits that determine whether someone should be lucky or unlucky. It is up to chance. What we encounter here is possibly sheer luck: luck that is unexplainable. In the case of this variety show, luck functions as a structure to create entertainment, and there is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, however, is how people believe luck to be more than a random or rare occurrence. 

We are all lucky to be alive. We are lucky to live in a Western society. Or at least, most of us reading this are (looking at you, non-Western ghost-people). Those are two things my parents always tell me. You are so lucky to be where you are now. I am not trying to claim that they are not right. My parents have seen horrible things during their own youth while they were not living in The Netherlands, so I cannot tell them I am not lucky to have been born in a wealthy and prospering country. But that does not make me a lucky person in general, does it? 

I am where I am because my parents suffered and worked hard to get where they are now, to provide me with the opportunity to build a proper future for myself. I am so thankful to them for everything they have done for me and my brother. It motivates me to work hard too and achieve my goals, live my dreams. Luck will not help me study or write or take care of myself. When someone accomplishes something, they do not get lucky: their hard work pays off. When someone gets promoted or when a YouTuber becomes famous, it is not sheer luck: they earned it. Someone beating you at Mario Kart does not mean they got lucky, it means you are not as good as you think you are. Me finishing my English BA in three years does not mean luck was on my side, it means I worked my ass off to become alumni.

There are website articles dedicated to teaching you how to increase your luck. The things you can do, according to them, include trying to create or find opportunities, keep a positive outlook on life, be clear about your goals, become all-knowledgeable and be nice, honest and energetic at all times. Do you see my problem with this type of luck now? All these things revolve around putting a certain type of effort into improving yourself which has nothing to do with chance but everything with working hard. It is hard to say you got lucky in a situation where you had full control, as control counters the element of unexpectedness: of luck. 

The thing about luck is that it gets easily confused with other things such as suffering and hard work and being street smart. Unlucky people are not unlucky by definition. Those deaths related to animals I mentioned earlier? Those were mostly caused by stupidity. Someone probably left a big window open, causing the dog to fall down 13 stories. The woman who got run over by a bus? She did not look out when crossing the road. The sodomy with a stallion was voluntarily. Beaver bite? The man wanted to take a selfie with the animal. Heraclitus had smeared himself with manure before he was ripped to shreds by those dogs. And those are just the explanations of some examples related to animals I discussed. Plenty of other deaths have been caused by even more stupidity.

For the sake of stupidity, let us return to that wonderful Wikipedia page and have a look at some pre-21st century deaths. Henry I of England (1135) and Adolf Frederick, King of Sweden (1771) are two examples of men who overate themselves to death. Hans Staininger (1567) tripped on his beard and broke his neck. An unknown person (1903) was beaten to death with a bible in an attempt at curing him of malaria. Kurt Godel (1978) died of starvation, because he refused to eat anything that was not prepared by his wife. Garry Hoy (1993) fell down 24 stories in an attempt to show that the Toronto-Dominion Center’s windows were unbreakable. These people specifically were unlucky to die the way they died, but they also died as a result of spurs of stupidity. I find their deaths fascinating. Stupid, but fascinating.   

Are refugees unlucky? Yes, and no. Refugees did not cause the situation they are trying to escape from, and there are no direct things they can do to make a change in their home countries. The situation forces refugees to flee their countries, leave everything behind, and try to start over somewhere else. In that sense, refugees are unlucky. They are the victims of poor policies, dictators, environmental issues, and/or poverty. Those are all solid entities and occurrences that give a cause and explanation to the situation of refugees. They are not just unlucky, but also victims of circumstance. Luck is supposed to be unexplainable, and I just gave a possible explanation as to why certain people become refugees. That does not account for everyone, but it shows that there are more determining factors at play.

Another interesting thing that relates back to luck is superstition. What I am specifically aiming at is talismans and believing in their protective powers. A couple weeks ago my very energetic methodology lecturer told us about the talisman theory. In short, this theory revolves around having a talisman, an item worn on a daily basis, that provides the wearer protection from evil spirits and, you guessed it right, luck. Losing or breaking the talisman will make the owner run into misfortune. My lecturer then continued his story by telling us the rope his talisman was attached to broke at some point and the following bad things happened: his daughter got sick, his partner got sick, his hard-drive crashed, his daughter fell badly and god knows what more.

This whole talisman theory thus rests on the presumed power of an item that seemingly determines whether someone does or does not run into misfortune. It is basically putting your trust in the material, relying on an item to guide you. A material item does not possess any special powers that will make certain things possible for you. At the same time, a material item will not make you experience unfortunate things when it breaks. As the famous Thomas theorem goes: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”.

When someone believes in a talisman and its presumed powers, they will also believe that anything that happens that could be a result of the talisman, is actually the talisman doing its work. Superstition is about believing in correlation that is not necessarily present and then calling this correlation fortune or misfortune. A talisman does whatever you believe it to do, it has no power on its own. It does not really have those powers. The item and its consequences become whatever the believer wants them to be. The interpretation of the situation thus causes the action.

What about things that happen and do not have an explanation? What about sheer luck? I am by no means an all-knowing entity OR trying to deny the existence of luck. If we could explain every single thing that happens, there would not be any fun in life. The unexpected is a thing, just like sheer luck is a thing. My mother once unlocked one of those number-locks by playing with it, which I would call sheer luck. People winning lotteries experience sheer luck. Sheer luck is about the improbable, the unforeseeable. In my opinion, it is the only type of luck that is substantial. Getting lucky should be like a godsend: something nice that happens in addition to what you already have.

A lot of things in life are easily explainable and have exterior factors causing them and are not the product of a vague phenomenon called luck. What I am trying to say is: do not rely on luck in any shape, way, or form. The world is your oyster and you are the King Kooker 5500 Stainless Steel Oyster Opener (available on Amazon, not sponsored). Those aphrodisiacs are not going to pop open magically if you just stare and them and hope to get lucky. You have to make an effort. Sure, some oysters will not open up, and that might be luck, but it will certainly not be all of them. If you really want something, do not wish for it, work for it. In the great spirit of Will Smith: “There is no such thing as luck, luck is when opportunity meets preparation” [4].

[1] (pls knock on wood I love my life)
[2] Confession: I used to watch this show back in the day when Discovery Channel would air it.
[3] Side note: this show is amazingly funny regardless of it being scripted or not so if you have never seen it, I highly recommend.
[4] Credits to Eda for pointing this quote out to me

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