Have You Been Morally Lucky?

In the year my wife and I returned to Chicago from my stint as an East Coast college professor, we encountered a surprising November snowfall. I remember heading for work on the morning after the Thursday evening whitening of the autumn world.

We lived in an apartment building located in the city’s Northwest corner. My work-a-day routine was always the same. I drove the half-block west from Summerdale toward a dependable stop sign. It never failed to be on the job.

The speed limit on the perpendicular road ahead was 35 miles an hour. I needed to take care and look for a break in the traffic before making a 90 degree right turn.

The snow said otherwise.

My sedan skidded as I approached the stopping place and knifed forward. No stop, no checking for other cars, just a horrifying bolt into no-man’s land.

Nothing happened, no other vehicles. I reached the opposite side of the thoroughfare feeling hugely lucky. Not only in the conventional sense but “morally lucky.”

What does that mean?

Though I didn’t exceed the required pace as I neared the STOP, the law argues I was going too fast “for conditions.”

Yes, I could have been injured, perhaps killed. Yes, I could have done the same to someone else.

What is less obvious is a hypothetical responsibility. A typical reaction to my story lacks the unfortunate ending to call the thought to mind. No harm, no moral implications. This is as much or as little as we think about it.

But what if my misguided missile shot into the intersection and killed someone? Then, I guarantee you, blame enters the theater. Then, part of the human race says I was irresponsible or careless. “He should have known better.”

I’d not disparage those who judged me in the lethal version of the incident. Indeed, I can’t find any unfairness in finger-wagging at a less than 100% irresponsibility or carelessness on my part. I drove the car, and the license allowing me the privilege demanded I do better.

Please understand, I’m sure no one would think of my behavior in moral terms, good or bad, but for bodily injury to another. Without an accident, the label “lucky” alone applies.

I offer this meditation on an everyday occurrence to reveal two things:

  • Human well-being, positive or negative, turns on incidents like this.
  • The judgment rendered by that same humanity rests on many such accidents or their absence.

But it is even more complicated.

Are you inclined to fault a person born under different conditions than your own who becomes a drug addict, a criminal, or a vagrant? Does the place you and the other land on the first day of life alter your chances of being a “good” person?

Is this not another version of the slippery street and the happenstance of a late-night snowfall? Is this not akin to my ramming someone or entering an empty boulevard?

Most of us applaud the hard work, resilience, or wisdom we possess, pointing to such qualities when explaining our relative “success.”

I encourage everyone to reflect with gratitude on the genetic lottery’s part in predetermined advantageous physical, emotional, and intellectual gifts. Thank God if you choose.

You and I are among the morally lucky some of the time. Who might any of us have become in another setting? With other parents or in a different country?

For myself, on another day, or a minute earlier or later, I might have caused another’s death driving along as I did.

=======

The images are the work of Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website. The first is called Metra Train Platform, 8/20. The second is an Alaska Road Sign, 2021.

8 thoughts on “Have You Been Morally Lucky?

  1. Ha Gerry. Interesting post. My first thought is rather irrelevant to your point. Better said, completely irrelevant. Summerdale avenue is notorious as both being the street where John Wayne Gacy lived as well as location of the most infamous police district in the history of Chicago where as I recall, all of the officers were involved in a burglary ring. Good that you didn’t stay there very long. Rick.
    El sáb., 19 de febrero de 2022 6:02 p. m., Dr. Gerald Stein escribió:
    > drgeraldstein posted: ” In the year my wife and I returned to Chicago from > my stint as an East Coast college professor, we encountered a surprising > November snowfall. I remember heading for work on the morning after the > Thursday evening whitening of the autumn world. We lived” >

    Like

    • Thanks, Rick. You are correct on both counts. The big Summerdale police scandal occurred when we were kids. But yes, we did live within several blocks of Gacy much farther west while he was doing his evil. Of course, we didn’t know at the time. A very long street with a very long history.

      Like

  2. Another perspective giving and thought-provoking post, Dr. Stein. I know I was morally lucky with the parents I was born to and in many points along the way. Thank you for the reminder to give gratitude and to expand my empathy for those who didn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Wynne. In our world we are prone to render immediate judgment. The longer I live, the more I find the complexity involved. Reading plays like Antigone or Medea leave more questions than answers. I’ve come to love the questions.

      Like

  3. “You and I are among the morally lucky some of the time. Who might any of us have become in another setting? With other parents or in a different country?” I think about this often. “What if I had stayed in the small, all-white mill town where I was raised, instead of moving to a small city nearby that is culturally diverse? Would my political outlook have been extremely right instead of leaning very left? Would the influence of the culture in that small mill town, caused me to see the world differently? I shudder to think that eight miles could have made a difference, but if my life and societal contacts were within that small mill town, I think I easily could have been morally unlucky and uninformed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. An interesting and thought-provoking post, Dr. Stein. It’s very easy to judge others when we have never walked in their shoes.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Rosaliene. Indeed. And the job of judging ourselves surely results in many a white wash.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s