Just luck

It’s nice to reflect that we’re the masters of our fates and the captains of our souls. The thought sets us free and it’s certainly better than giving in to destiny. But, of course, it’s mostly a delusion. What we take for our successes and our failures are almost entirely luck—good luck, and bad luck, but luck all the same.

Our most lucky day was the very first one, the day we were conceived. Each of us won a sperm race determined by the smallest movements of our mothers within the span of a few hours—if she had leaned forward to pick up a cup or decided not to, if she had coughed at just the wrong moment—we wouldn’t exist. But here we are and we think that it couldn’t be any other way. And that wasn’t even the beginning, really. The same was true for our parents, and for theirs, and so on. And even if we took all of that for granted, our parents still had to bump into one another, to begin with, and they had to do it again, so to speak, on the day we were made. We had nothing to do with any of it. It was just luck.

Our worst luck, it seems, will be what leads us to die, as we all must. A cell in our pancreas will start to divide and refuse to stop, or we’ll look elsewhere while we’re driving, and there we’ll go. But in truth, our worst luck was likely something else, something simple, something that’s already happened and that will shape decades of our lives and not just its last moments. It isn’t only the peaks and the valleys that depend on luck, but the flat landscape between them too. The dull plains of our everyday existence are just as riddled with chance events in almost every single moment. We don’t see it that way, but upon those myriads of dice rolls depend the few outstanding events we choose to care about.

I sat where I’m sitting now as I write this a few minutes before I started, in conversation with our dog. Cola is an English Staffie and she’s basically a muscle with a smile at the one end and an arsehole at the other. She lay on her side in the sun, cocking her ears as I spoke.

“What are you thinking, Cola?” I asked.

She got up and came to sit right in front of me in what we call position B—her front legs to the one side. Position B looked particularly human, like someone relaxing on a sofa.

“You’re thinking something,” I said, “inside there.”

She cracked a smile and panted. It struck me how alike we were, despite our differences. We were both mammals, warm-blooded quadrupeds with a similar body architecture, set apart only by small bits of DNA here and there. But these bits were important. While Cola knew the word ball and knew what it meant and had heard it a thousand times, she would never say it.

I remembered her father, a brute of a dog I met the day we bought her. This dog, too, had a father, and so did it, and so on. I imagined a long line of male dogs stretching back from Cola in time, back to before humans had forged dogs from wolves, each one slightly different from its descendants, back even farther to the time after the dinosaurs had left the world to small mammals. Then I thought of my own father, and his, and so on, through the first toolmakers two million years ago in East Africa, back to earlier primates, and back farther still, to that same time. Today, we know from genetic evidence that my line of fathers intersects Cola’s line. If we thought that it didn’t we would have to explain the miracle that two entirely separate forms of life could end up being so similar. But those two lines do intersect. And this means that there existed a single male mammal many millions of years ago, a father of two sons, the one son leading to me and you, and the other to Cola. It had to be that way. Yet, it was a staggering thought. These two brothers could not have been very different, but something caused them to go their own, vastly different ways. What was it that had separated them? It could have been a mountain ridge or a valley, but it was more likely something small that happened on the everyday plain of their lives.

“Whatever it was,” I told Cola, “it was just luck.”

PS: this idea is also used in The secret suicide of questions. I like it so much that I don’t mind using it twice.

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