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NONFICTION


and the smell of old paper. Certain books had morphed in meaning in the past week, such as Skinny Legs and All, White Noise, and most of my science fiction; the cover of Underworld’ had become uncanny and foreboding. In my head, I posed questions to my library as though consulting an oracle. My thumb grazed the purple cover of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and I contemplated the deeply resonant idea that the foibles of luck render it a complete waste of time and energy to obsess about one’s purpose in life. As I skimmed through, Vonnegut seemed to pat my knee and tell me that nothing was my fault. A couple hundred pages in, the protagonist, Malachi Constant, finally realizes that he has no control over the trajectory of his life:


“‘What happened to you?’ said the congregation. ‘I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all,’ he


said.


The cheering and dancing began again. Like Malachi Constant, my present circumstance


was created by a series of accidents, short straws, bad luck. Initially, I found the idea comforting—Mark’s Cracker Jack flippancies couldn’t counter Vonnegut. As I stood with my hand pressed to the book as though it were a Bible, I realized that accepting the sheer arbitrariness of my situation was tantamount to admitting that there was nothing I could have done, or could now do. If luck is the force that moves the world, not everything is about me, or you, or anyone— perhaps not much is. While there’s a certain comfort in powerlessness and in the idea that all we can do is keep going, I found it problematically passive.


If we embrace luck, we cede our agency and


disconnect ourselves from cause and effect. Luck removes us from personal fault and responsibility, but it feels like an empty explanation, a cop out. 9/11 was a consequence of years of logistical planning, as well as hatred toward the U.S. and its policies. The towers fell because planes flew into them; that part wasn’t luck. The haziness comes in when I consider the people involved in 9/11 through no choice of their own— the people on the planes, in the towers, on the sidewalk. Even people like me, outsiders suddenly thrust into a crumbling labyrinth to discover that the map people had used to find their way before didn’t exist anymore. All of us who felt disoriented, like we’d been strapped half-conscious into a seat on the Tilt-A-Whirl, unable to get off.


In Sirens, Malachi Constant fumbles his way through


a life that, unbeknownst to him, has been predetermined. He commits the folly of believing in his own agency, and then the reader simultaneously winces and laughs as it becomes clear that he’s a pawn in a ridiculously specific and poignantly absurd grand scheme. Vonnegut chides us for becoming so consumed with the search for meaning that our purpose in life becomes finding out our purpose in life. However, Vonnegut was a humanist, which means that he believed


in people’s ability to learn, to change, and to determine the course of their lives. He didn’t actually believe that life is just a series of accidents, and neither do I.


Buddhists believe that nothing is an accident; that


luck or lack thereof, skills, and even the way someone looks are all results of past actions. What we’ve done in our previous lives determines the qualities we possess in our current lives, including luck itself. If something appears to happen by chance, it’s because we don’t yet understand the relationship. We can make or change our luck over the course of a few lifetimes, but we’re born into our current lives with a finite amount of luck.


The idea of luck being finite raises all sorts of


questions. Can we stockpile it by staying away from Vegas and the stock market? Can we use it all up in one glorious burst, or is it meted out? Since luck exists in both quantity and quality, do some people get a heap of better-than-average luck and others a dash of extraordinary luck? 9/11 generated stories of near-misses, people whose alarms failed to go off that morning, thus saving their lives, or the secretary who had just stepped out to make a bagel run. How much of their luck did these people use up by surviving that day? Did the people who didn’t survive simply run out?


The Hindu system of karma also connects luck to


cause and effect; beneficial events result from past beneficial actions and harmful events from past harmful actions. Karma accumulates and returns, sometimes unexpectedly, years or decades later, or in one’s next life. Good actions build good karma, which generates good luck, suggesting that good luck can be earned and is linked to what one deserves.


Any system that guides us toward earning luck is


incompatible with the idea that luck is random, which is especially confusing in the context of 9/11. As much as I want to believe in a universal system of fairness under which we ultimately get what we deserve, I would rather believe that blind luck causes bad things happen to good people than to believe that good people did something to deserve what they got—especially the people who died on 9/11.


Sometimes, I feel I’ve earned good luck when


I’ve suffered a run of bad. This line of thought isn’t really about earning anything—it’s about the law of averages, the assertion that luck functions like the economy, that a boom follows a depression. During hard times, we can console ourselves with the belief that our luck is bound to change. This also means that good fortune won’t or can’t go unchallenged for long, so we can either appreciate our good luck while it lasts or wait for the other shoe to fall. Next to the complexities of luck and karma, the tendency toward the mean provides a practical and mathematical explanation for luck’s vicissitudes. Then again, as Vonnegut says, “some people are lucky and other people aren’t and not even a graduate of Harvard Business School can say why.


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