Lucky Duck

I like luck. I don’t understand it and can’t predict or explain it, but I enjoy courting it and can’t help believing in it. Philosopher Nicholas Rescher—author of Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life—contends that without luck, life as we know it would be unsustainable, that the randomness of good and bad luck gives life the spice that makes it palatable. As I see it, luck encompasses a lot of other ideas with jazzier labels: divine intervention, extrasensory perception, mindfulness, and the will of the universe, to name a few.

You could argue with me that these are all distinctly different principles and that to mash them together is to misunderstand them all, and you’d be right enough. But I’m going to do it anyway, because at the end of the day, when the bedside light goes out and you stare at the soft orange glow of the streetlamp on the ceiling, hashing it over, you’re bound to say to yourself how lucky this or that thing was—whether you’re a church-going type, a fatalist, or a sage-burning, meditating, Buddha-loving, place-the-auspicious-green-plant-in-the-southeast-corner-of-the-house-for-wealth sampler type, like me.

Reviewers say that Rescher’s book “offers a realistic view of the nature and operation of luck to help us come to sensible terms with life in a chaotic world.” He interweaves historical examples, from the use of lots in the Bible to Thomas Gataker’s treatise of 1619 on the great English lottery of 1612, from gambling in casinos to playing the stock market. Rescher maintains that “because we are creatures of limited knowledge who do and must make decisions in the light of incomplete information, we are inevitably at the mercy of luck.”

I have a little theory of my own to offer, which is that the more you notice luck, the more of it you find coming toward you. It’s exactly the same as when I was fifteen and my boyfriend drove a brown Cutlass and I suddenly started seeing tenfold more brown Cutlasses driving on the city streets than I ever had before. (This same principle did not, however, apply when my boyfriend two years later drove a black Cadillac hearse as the bandmobile for his pals, but that’s an understandable exception).

I had a very lucky moment a few weeks ago when my childless sister was in town being the good auntie, and my house was crawling with kids and commotion. We were getting ready to rush off to the next activity when I heard our niece Charisma, four years old, hollering at my sister upstairs. I thought it was because she’d been having too much fun with the gang and didn’t want to go back home. But in the same instant, I knew I was wrong. I swung around stupidly looking for her, and heard her holler again. I ran to the window and saw two small bare legs sticking out of the pond and a cascade of long blond hair splayed across the surface of the water.

I screamed something I can’t remember and ran out the front door. Jon bolted for the back door. He got there first, and grabbed her soft white legs with his big brown hands and pulled her out. I carried her in, her wet head pressed against my face. “I want my mama!” she sobbed.

But her mama wasn’t there, she was home with Charisma’s brand-new baby sister, and so it was my daughter Sophie and I who helped peel off the sodden clothes and run the shower and wash the pond scum out of those long curls. Later, Charisma drew a picture of herself, a stick figure with a large head, reaching over the rock ledge of the pond for a “pretty thing,” a floating glass bauble. She then drew the next frame, in which her mouth was open to signify her call for help when she found herself too far over the edge to pull herself up again.

The weird thing about all this is that to call the bit of water in our yard a pond is a stretch, to say the least. It’s not quite three feet deep and it’s about the circumference of a standard umbrella. Benches and gardens encircle it, and no one has ever fallen into it except Charisma, who has done so twice now, and she’s only four. But what I saw out the window was scary enough for me to still be reliving it. I really don’t know if she could have gotten her head stuck under the water. I can’t rule it out, no matter how I’ve tried, and I’ve had to sit many times since and feel the magnitude of my thankfulness for this piece of luck—the baffling phenomenon that touches and humbles us all with the random power of its grand surprise.