The Handwriting on The Wall

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7b/Rembrandt_-_Belshazzar%27s_Feast_-_WGA19123.jpg/500px-Rembrandt_-_Belshazzar%27s_Feast_-_WGA19123.jpg
“Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you!” So said the great Negro Leagues pitcher Satchell Paige. This was one of his six rules for staying young, which first appeared in Collier’s magazine in the June 13, 1953 issue.

Good advice?

Maybe, maybe not.

The weight of regret as we look back on mistakes can be great, robbing us of the possibility of happiness now or in the future.

On the other hand, if we are to learn anything about life, some amount of reflection on the past is required.

There is also a biblical take on this to be found in the Book of Daniel. It is rendered above in a reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting Belshazzar’s Feast.

The story is told that in ancient Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar had transported loot from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem to his own royal court. At a drunken feast, his son, the new King Belshazzar uses these sacred objects of silver and gold to “praise the gods of gold and silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone.” The fingers of a hand suddenly appear and write Hebrew words on the wall behind the king. No one in the king’s party can translate the message, where upon Belshazzar summons an exiled Jew who had worked under Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel informs the king that he has blasphemed and decodes the meaning of the words:
God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.
You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

So it comes to pass that very evening that King Belshazzar is murdered and replaced as king by Darius the Mede.

The handwriting on the wall comes late, too late for Belshazzar to undo his misdeed and profit from the learning. Most of us have a bit better chance of putting things right and reforming ourselves and our behavior.

Unfortunately, not everyone does so, that is, takes the time to learn. Satchell Paige was right: “…something might be gaining on you.” But it just might be something important, knowledge or self-awareness that must catch up to you despite the forward rush of life.

One of Paige’s contemporaries, Adlai Stevenson II,  put it very well.

“Most people can’t read the handwriting on the wall until their back is up against it.”

My advice?

Don’t be one of those people.

Look over your shoulder now and then. A little self-reflection is a good thing.

The above image is Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, source from the Web Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons.

Is There Such a Thing as Bad Luck?

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a5/6sided_dice.jpg/240px-6sided_dice.jpg

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.