Aristotle thought that making it in life was a combination of self-directed virtue and luck. I agree. Luck is another way of saying genetic, psychological, and environmental factors. When it comes to the lottery of life – and it is a lottery – I have hit the jackpot. I was born a man. Never have I dealt with sexism in my life. I was born white. Never have I dealt with racism (on the contrary, I had to be convinced it exists). I was born good looking; or, good enough to pass. Never have I dealt with people ignoring me because of the way I look. I was born Christian, and became Christian, the most accepted and celebrated religion in America. Never have I dealt with Islamophobia, anti-Antisemitism or Xenophobia. I am tall. When I was short, I did get made fun of, and it did affect me at the time. I was born to parents who loved me and took care of me, with a brother, sister, and grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. My mother didn’t smoke, do drugs, beat me, neglect me. On the contrary.
Yes, I hit the jackpot.
Through no virtue of my own.
I am not being overly humble or self-deprecating. I do think that I – whatever that means – was a part of this. I steered the ship. I made some good decisions, formed some good habits, and did my best with what I’ve got. I am part of the equation. And now, I enjoy a pretty damn good life. It could only get better from here, which is an amazing position to be in. But eventually we have to be honest with ourselves and realize that, when it comes to so many people, they have not enjoyed the lottery. They were faced with incredible odds.
And with that knowledge, not surprisingly, comes compassion, and humility, and understanding.
It’s a curious position to be in. When thinking about ourselves, as individuals, we must believe that we can do anything. Psychologically, there is no better way to live, even when the odds are against you. It’s the motivation to strive. Pick yourself up by your own bootstraps! You have to push through and beat the odds (and, in truth, you can). But, when thinking about other people, about groups of people, about statistical realities, we must take a more nuanced approach. We must consider all the factors that make up a person’s destiny, none of which are in the person’s control:
- environment in the womb
- early upbringing: the first weeks, months, and years matter – a lot. Even the tiny details such as breast milk matter.
- poverty, income level
- parental love
- cultural factors
- thousands more…you get the idea
Just take the fact that I had Mr. Jackson for my English teacher in High School. This was a complete accident, yet probably changed the course of my life forever. Had I never met Mr. Jackson, perhaps I wouldn’t have become a reader, a philosopher, a librarian, an intellectual. Sure we all have free will, the ability to make decisions and form good habits and create a good life.
But even free will has it’s limits. I celebrate Thanksgiving every single day. Nowadays, Thanksgiving gives me the single emotion of happiness and sadness, if such a thing exists. I hope for a future where everyone has the same odds in life.