Luck is often described as being in the right place at the right time. Some people consider themselves to have been born under a lucky star while others feel as if they’ve been living under a dark cloud their entire lives. Exploring the concept of luck, I wanted to first set forth in defining it. Secondly, I wanted to ask how one’s perspective of luck affects its role on happiness in their life. With that I pose the question, if given the choice, would you rather die in a car crash or survive with permanent brain damage?
On a Friday night in 1986, a group of college students went out for some much-deserved fun after a stressful week of exams. Among them were my mother, whom they’d nicknamed Katie, her boyfriend George, their arrogant but brilliant buddy Mickey, 2 pre-med brothers from the University of Illinois—Gordon, and Zoran—and sweet John who was working at a pizza place to pay his way through community college. The group enjoyed some reggae music and a beer while listening to George stress about his Philosophy paper that he’d turned in that afternoon; George was one of those students who always thought he’d done poorly on an exam despite his nearly perfect GPA so his friends weren’t very sympathetic to his plight. Eventually he loosened up and the boys decided they wanted to go clubbing. My mom had to work early the next morning so she’d asked to be dropped off on their way out. Mickey was driving that night so they all hopped in his car—my mom in the middle front seat and George in the passenger seat; in the back were Zoran behind the driver’s seat, Gordon in the middle and John behind the passenger seat.
When they got to my mom’s house, George walked Katie up to the door to say goodnight. Desperately wanting him to stay the night with her, she decided against asking because she knew how stressed out he’d been about the paper and wanted him to relax and have fun with the boys. George kissed her goodnight followed by his usual, “love you, honey bunch”. As he got back into the car, he blew her a kiss and they headed to the club.
With the stress of midterms behind them and everyone in relatively good spirits, the night was young and the boys were carrying on the momentum. My mom however, was disappointed that George wasn’t going to spend the rest of the evening with her. She wanted it to be his choice to stay but also knew how much he needed to just hang with the guys that night. Perspective is an important aspect in the pursuit of happiness. Sissela Bok explores the multifaceted topic of happiness in her book Exploring Happiness. “Shifts of perspective involve the direction of time: looking back at all that has come together to shape a situation, then forward to all that may follow it; or survey an entire lifetime, then focusing on a particular moment or period” (31). In this particular case, Katie shifted her perspective from her own happiness to George’s, and furthermore looking forward to the rest of that night, deciding that he would be happier to just relax. But as is often the case, happiness is ephemeral.
Several hours later, in the middle of the night, my mom received a call from George’s father. “Katie, there’s been an accident. You need to come to the hospital. Take a cab.” When she arrived at the hospital, his mom gave her the news that George had been in an accident and that he’d passed away about an hour earlier. He was the only person that died in the crash that night.
Following the accident, police reports began to fill in the missing pieces with updates on the rest of the boys. As it turns out, when George got out to say goodnight to my mom, John hopped out from the back and stole his spot in the passenger seat. When George got back in the car, he was sitting in the back right seat right behind John. It was a mere 2 blocks down the road that Mickey rolled through a stop sign and was broadsided by an oncoming car which pushed them into a brick building. John, sitting shotgun, was ejected from the car. The rest of the boys were left in the car until paramedics arrived. Upon their initial assessment, it was determined that John was in the most critical condition and was sent to the highest trauma center; he suffered major brain injury and now lives with cognitive impairment. Zoran took the impact from the building and suffered head injuries and broken bones so he was sent next. Mickey needed stiches and was badly bruised but otherwise in relatively good condition as was Gordon who was cushioned by the bodies around him. George didn’t have a scratch on him so he was sent to the Emergency Room for evaluation instead of the trauma center. As it turns out, he had severe internal bleeding and the hospital was not equipped to treat his injuries so they called in for a surgeon. George died before the surgeon made it to the hospital.
It is my opinion that luck is all a matter of perspective. You can look at both sides of the same coin and reach a completely different outlook on a given scenario. So who was really lucky in this incident? John may have come away with his life, but he suffered permanent brain damage leading to cognitive impairment that made it difficult for him to successfully play a game of cards. George, a brilliant student of DePaul pursuing his masters in philosophy, suffered a premature death at 24. How does time and distance affect one’s perspective on a given situation? Can you simultaneously feel both lucky and unlucky about the same incident? Can a situation ever be considered intrinsically lucky or unlucky? Or will perspective always hold the power to challenge that answer?
Likewise, it is interesting to consider the implications of that accident for the other passengers. Hospitalized for some time with major injuries, Zoran recovered and went on to continue med-school, later becoming a neurosurgeon at Northwestern hospital in Chicago, Illinois. He now specializes in cognitive disorders; perhaps his experiences with John and his brain injury helped to push him into the field of neurology. Bok sheds light on the topic of luck by saying, “Yes, we are buffeted by forces and random events far beyond our control. But this is no reason to stop generating efforts of our own, to alter our situation in which we find ourselves. We become who we are in part by how we respond to the shifting circumstances against which our lives delineate themselves” (2). Both our physical actions as well as our mental perspective constitute our response to those circumstances. It isn’t always necessary to find the silver lining to every cloud, but it seems as if perspective holds a great deal of power in the context of happiness; finding new angles to gain a productive insight on a situation allows for personal growth and resilience.
Further analyzing the different perspectives of luck that night, the question of whether it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all lends itself to my mother’s circumstances; should she consider herself lucky to have known George at all or would she have rather avoided the heartache altogether? In one light, it is terribly unlucky to have lost the love of your life at such a young age. It is also very fortunate to have had the pleasure of knowing him while she had the chance. Moreover, had she not decided to spend the night in, she would have likely been sitting in the front seat of that car which would open the door to a multitude of possible outcomes. Shifting perspective once more, I’ve considered my own role in this story. Had my mother married George, she never would have met my father and I wouldn’t be here today. It is the dichotomy of these scenarios that empowers perspective to directly affect one’s own happiness.
It is my conclusion that good luck does not exist independently of bad luck; perspective ultimately defines luck in each unique circumstance. Sissela Bok opens her book with an account of her own luck and happiness, sharing the unlikely case of her existence despite her mom’s fertility issues. Her opening sentence resonates throughout the book; “the mind reels at the thought of the infinitesimal chances that any of us had of being born, able to relish even the slightest glimmer of happiness” (1). To extend that notion of luck, it is important for the sake of our happiness to allow our experiences, for better or worse, to guide us forward rather than falling victim to our circumstances.
Bok, Sissela. Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science. New Haven [Conn.: Yale UP, 2010. Print.
Lazich, Kathy. “George’s Accident.” E-mail interview. 17 Oct. 2013.