Is There Such a Thing as Bad Luck?

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I once met a man called “Lucky.” My garage door had failed and he was the repair man. I saw the name on his jacket and asked him about it. He said that until about 10 years before, everything had worked out just right in his life, hence the nickname. But then the wheel of fortune turned and illness and death followed, including the death of his wife. “Lucky’s” luck had run out.

Shakespeare had a sense of such things. Thus, in Hamlet, following the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia, we read the words, “…When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” More colloquial usage tells us that bad events come “in threes.” Same idea.

The other side of bad luck, is the good. Branch Rickey, the baseball executive, famously said,  “Luck is the residue of design.” Of course, he was talking about good luck and how careful planning and persistence helped create it, or made it look as if it had been created. And a woman of my acquaintance, someone who lost a parent early and a husband late, has only recently met the love of her life. Better to have good luck late than early, it would seem.

Still, if one reads Greek mythology, one finds Solon, a wise man, counseling that no one should consider himself (or be considered) happy, until the last possible moment of his life, because misfortune yet has time to occur. “Lucky” would agree.

Some believe that there is no such thing as luck: that you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get, a Karmic view of things. Churches of prosperity promote “right thinking and right living” in the belief that you will be rewarded in this life and the next for such action and the correct form of religious observance. And if we read the Book of Job, in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) we find a man who has all manner of bad fortune thanks to a friendly wager between the angel Lucifer and God.

Job had been a prosperous, religious, happy, and good man. But he is made to suffer all sorts of loss and pain so that his devotion to God might be tested. Three friends come to ask him what he could have done to deserve such misfortune. Surely, they tell him, he must have done something iniquitous. Clearly, they don’t believe in the notion of “bad luck.”

Many years ago a social psychologist name Melvin Lerner proposed something called “the Just World Hypothesis.” Lerner contended that when we observe misfortune occurring to another person, we prefer to believe that the individual has done something to deserve the negative events befalling him. But, if it is clear that he did nothing, then we will tend to devalue him personally, in effect saying, “well, maybe he didn’t do anything to cause his problems directly, but he isn’t a good guy, so, in a way, he deserves what has happened anyway.”

Lerner maintained that people do this sort of mental gymnastics unconsciously in order to fend off the notion that something bad might happen to them. “Terror Management Theory” has picked up where Lerner left off, looking at how we manage and try to mute the anxiety caused by our mortal state.

You say you don’t believe in luck? Well then, you must believe that all disease and all accidents “happen for a reason,” that the explosion of a volcano, for example, is guided by some divine hand. But when those illnesses, accidents, and misfortunes target the innocent, especially little children who are raped or tortured, you will be hard pressed to find a reason that is adequate. “Ah,” some say, “we, on earth, don’t understand God’s ways; but surely, this will be for the best in the end.” The conversation is never ending, and it is unlikely that either side will persuade the other.

Finally, there is the question of how to define when a thing is good luck or bad. According to another Greek myth, Cleobis and Biton were the two sons of Cydippe, who needed to attend a religious festival at some distance from her home. However, oxen to draw her cart were not available, and so these two good young men yoked themselves to the cart and got mom to the festival on time.

Their act of devotion to their mother won wide praise, but since they were exhausted, they soon needed to nap. Cydippe, who also had been praised for having raised such offspring, prayed that her sons would receive the best that any man could obtain. And, ironically, this wish was granted in the form of the their painless deaths as they slept, dying after having received great accolades at the pinnacle of their lives; now they would not have to suffer whatever else might come as they aged.

Good luck? You be the judge.

The photo of four colored dice above is the work of Diacritica, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

After Life

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The subject of religion is a dangerous one. Many people have strong opinions for and against. It makes little sense to trying to persuade someone that God does exist, or that he/she doesn’t.

At the risk of offending you, I’m going to offer a few random thoughts on the subject, with particular focus on the question of whether there is a life after death and what it might consist of. I don’t claim to be strongly attached to all of these thoughts, but I do find them interesting; you might as well. If, however, you are 100% certain of the validity of your own opinions (or that of your faith or lack of faith), I’d suggest that you don’t read further.

So, if you are still with me…

When I was a kid, an athlete who hit a home run or scored a touchdown generally didn’t make an enormous deal of it. Today athletes are much more demonstrative, not a bad thing in itself. However, a good number of them point to the sky, presumably to heaven, to give thanks. In some cases it represents the same “Gott mit uns” attitude, an essentially tribal view, that some countries adopt in and out of war-time: “God on our side.” In other cases, the jocks state that they are giving thanks simply for the good health and ability that they believe they have been given by God. Well, first of all, I sure hope God has better things to do than to side with one team or another. But there is actually a pretty funny story about this, in W. P. Kinsella’s collection of short stories, The Thrill of the Grass. The story is called The Last Pennant Before Armageddon and its about the Cubs winning the pennant.

On the subject of heaven, it seems that we all want to go there, but we don’t have a really clear idea about what it consists of. Many references are made to deceased loved ones looking down on us and looking after us from beyond the grave. But think about that for a moment. What if heaven does consist of people who do care, and care a lot, about what is going on back on this mortal coil? How can they be living in never-ending happiness? Seeing all the unhappiness, the accidents, injuries, and disappointments of life is heartbreaking and tough enough when you live here. To think that the dead are suffering with us from afar doesn’t sound like my idea of a better world.

On the other hand, let’s assume for the moment that “the dead don’t care,” a refrain in Thomas Lynch’s book Undertakings. (Lynch is both a published poet and a professional undertaker, so he has a rather interesting vantage point on death). If our parents and loved ones no longer care about us (and assuming that they reside in heaven), they must be quite different creatures than they were on earth. And I can’t imagine the petty jealousies of life, the hunger, the (at least) occasional insomnia, the worry, and so forth, being the lot of those in any heaven worthy of the name. So, if people actually do go to such a place, I doubt that we would quite recognize them as being very much like they were on earth. And, frankly, one would be so transformed in transit to heaven as to have difficulty recognizing oneself.

A number of people commented on how the recent death of Farrah Fawcett was overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson. A few of my patients expressed the fact that they felt sorry for Farrah that the media didn’t attend more to her passing. It is a touching sentiment. But, if Thomas Lynch is correct, Farrah wasn’t bothered by it.

I recommend that you watch a Japanese movie of several years ago, After Life. It depicts a group of recently deceased people who assemble at a sort of transit station on the way to whatever is beyond. They are told that they will have several days to decide on their own version of eternity, which will consist of living forever in whatever single moment they choose from their just-ended life history on earth. They are each assigned a counselor of sorts, to assist them in the choosing process. To live “in the moment” necessitates that they give up that part of themselves that, like all humans, allows them to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever large or small single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings attached only to that slice of time rather than to thought, analysis, worry, reflection, or concentration on other things, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, each person in the movie struggles with giving up all of their other memories, relationships, and daily preoccupations in return for an eternity of living within a single instant in time with a single focus.

To me, it sounds like a heaven worth wishing for, one that would really be wonderful, assuming that one would choose a particularly joyous or exciting or touching instant of one’s life. And it raises an interesting question: what moment would you choose?

Do we fear death or dying? Just asking. Shakespeare’s Hamlet clearly worries about the afterlife not being so much fun. If you haven’t read his famous soliloquy in a while, the one that starts “To be or not to be…,” you might want to take a look at what thoughts about death ultimately stopped him from taking his own life:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Another film on the subject of life and afterlife is called Defending Your Life. Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep star as two forty-something, recently deceased Yuppies who meet in the place you supposedly go after you die, Judgment City. There, you are subjected to a sort of tribunal where it is determined whether you learned enough and accomplished enough in your earthly existence to win you a place on the next higher level of existence, presumably something like heaven. Streep’s character was a brave, generous, and loving person in life, so there is no question that she will go on to the next level. For Brooks’s character, however, things aren’t looking too good. He never overcame his fear of a great many things on earth, so he might just get sent back, reincarnated without memory of his past, in the form of a new-born little boy. And, if this happens, the love affair that has begun in Judgment City between him and Streep’s character will end. I won’t spoil the rest of the film for you, but it is a very funny, entertaining, and wise movie about the need to learn and progress and grow throughout our lives, and to be brave in facing whatever is difficult for us.

And, who knows, maybe there is something like a Judgment City ahead for all of us.

The above image is Stratocululi. Source: German Wikipedia, original upload 3. September 2004 by de: Benutzer. Living Shadow. Courtesy of Wikimediacommons.

Father’s Day

Father’s Day can be complicated.

Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all.

Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine.

And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure.

But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple.

While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in July 2000, soon to be followed by my mother in February 2001, and our family dog in November 2001: a tough 16 months.

The experience taught me what Hamlet’s uncle Claudius knew when he said to his wife (Hamlet’s mother), “O Gertrude, Gertrude, when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”

“When will dad be OK again?” my children asked my own wife. It took a little while, but eventually time and the loving support of family and friends did the job of healing.

But being healed isn’t the same as being indifferent and, as I said earlier, I still miss my father.

If you saw the movie “Peggy Sue Got Married” with Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage, think back to the scene of her time-travel from middle age to age 16; specifically, to the moment when she talked to her deceased grandmother on the phone, now suddenly back to life.

I’d give a lot to have a moment like that with my dad.


My father was a good story-teller. One of his favorites was about his time as a star Chicago Cubs pitcher.

He wasn’t, of course.

Somehow, all the records of his “career” in the major leagues had been “lost,” or so he told us. He also informed me and my brothers that he’d been able to pitch nearly every day, and was so reliable and dependable that his teammates called him “Rain or Shine” Milt Stein (able to pitch, “rain or shine”). We all came to value this funny tale and, in fact, had my wife and I had a male child, the boy’s middle name would have been “Rainer,” as in “rain or shine,” in honor of the newborn’s grandfather.

Another story he told frequently was based in fact rather than imagination.

Twenty year old Milt Stein had a tough time in 1932, the depth of the Great Depression. He could find little steady work, though he had enough to eat thanks to living with his parents. Finally, he landed a full-time job at the opening of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. His boss told him that he could work every day if he wished (although he didn’t have to), but work and money were so dear that he did — 170 consecutive days from May 27th into November.

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It was a few years after my dad died when I first realized that these two stories were actually different ways of telling the same morality tale: my dad was “Rain or Shine” Milt Stein, reliable and hard-working, both on the imaginary playing field of his “major league” career and at the World’s Fair performing a real job.

I don’t even know if my father was aware of the connection between these stories.

Dad was an intelligent, but uncomplicated man. If he had lived in a more prosperous time he’d certainly have graduated college. But, as things turned out he worked as a postal supervisor, raised three boys, and was married to the same woman for almost 60 years.

When I was very little, my father played a game of make-believe with me. In those days before everyone had some sort of recording device, he used our floor model vacuum cleaner extension as a pretend microphone for a radio show he fashioned out of his imagination. We would take turns speaking into the nozzle as he interviewed me.

I guess my career in interviewing people goes pretty far back.

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I owe my love of baseball, a sense of fair play, and a strong work ethic to my father; and the fact that years later, each night at bedtime, I would reach into my own imagination as he did with me during our “radio show,” to tell my young daughters a story; a different one nearly every night, especially with my first-born.

Dad was not a perfect man or a perfect father. His three sons all saw too little of him because of his dedication to work and the shadow of the Great Depression on his view of matters financial. He deferred to my mother too much for our well-being.

But it is Father’s Day, not the day to get into his shortcomings.

In 1985 Milton Stein’s youngest brother, my Uncle Harry, died suddenly. I’d not been very close to my uncle, so that loss didn’t much affect me except for the fact that it made my dad’s mortality palpable to me: if Harry, my father’s youngest brother could die, then surely my father would, possibly soon. The family history of heart disease had killed Harry, and my dad had narrowly escaped alive from his own heart attack at age 47, over 25 years before.

In the wake of Harry’s death, I asked my “old man” (now genuinely old) if he’d be open to doing a videotaped history of his life, with me as the interviewer — the “radio show” with the roles reversed. He complied readily.

I still have the four hours of video that my father and I created together. Much of it is filled with the detail of his life, but at a few points my normally controlled dad let down his guard.

Most moving of all was his recollection of returning to the USA from WWII service in Europe. He hadn’t seen my mom for about two years. He called her as soon as he was situated on American soil.

As I’ve detailed elsewhere (Love Letters), the catch in Milton Stein’s voice and the tears in his eyes as he recalled hearing the woman he ached for — the love of his life — would have been unforgettable even without the video evidence.

I’m sure that you can tell I have a soft spot for my dad.

And, lucky me, I have two wonderful daughters who will make me feel like the most important person in the world on Father’s Day.

But, I’m even luckier than that.

They make me feel like it is Father’s Day every day.

The photos above are all of my father, with the obvious exception of the vacuum cleaner, made available from the Open Clip Art Library; and the poster from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, created by Weimer Pursell, silkscreen print by Neely Printing Co., Chicago; both sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first picture of my dad is probably from some time in the early to mid-1930s. The second photo looks as though he was a teenager when it was taken.

The night time snap-shot probably took my dad by surprise while he was on a date, before he met his wife-to-be (my mother). It was likely shot by a street photographer, who would have handed my father a numbered envelope that identified the negative. Dad would have had to mail the envelope to the company with payment in order to get developed copies of the picture.

I recall seeing such photographers in downtown Chicago at least as late as the 1960s. Now, of course, just about everyone carries his own camera/phone.

The final image is of the young Stein family in late 1959: my mom and dad and, left to right, Jack, myself, and Eddie.