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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 2/15/2016 |




A FICKLE FECKLESS MISTRESS?

‘Luck be a lady tonight’ croons Frank Sinatra as I write this. Not by chance – I am listening to ‘Guys and Dolls’ – one of my all-time favorite musicals. So lady luck is no lady, I think, more the ‘fickle mistress’ who may ‘leave her escort’, ‘flirt with strangers’ or ‘wander all over the room’ as Sinatra seems to think. Of course, he was singing during a crap game which he desperately wanted to win and continued to woo her while he rolled the dice. We all know what the outcome of that particular game was. No need to go into details here. I briefly wonder why luck is portrayed as a lady – maybe because she is fickle, restless, irrational and impulsive, and the feminist in me briefly wonders why all these attributes can’t equally apply to men. I abandon that line of thought – much has been said and written about deifying women in all ancient religions and cultures and concentrate on the topic on hand.

I remember participating in a debate long ago – the topic was a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson: “Luck is not chance
It's toil
Fortune's expensive smile
Is earned”

I remember speaking against the topic and the debate being an exciting one. I no longer remember what I said or who finally won. Probably the team speaking for the motion. I would have remembered if we had won. It is easy to understand why I remember this – the debate about luck and chance and fortune versus toil, effort, preparedness, intelligence, ability and all the other qualities indispensable for success. Is there actually anything called luck, or good fortune or chance that plays a decisive role in our lives or are we the sole ‘master(s) of (our) fates’? Do we always reap what we sow or do some actually get windfall gains?

‘Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity’ said the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher (4 BC – 65AD). In fact, this train of thought has been largely dominant in Europe where philosophers, religious leaders and thinkers stressed the importance of toil and effort. Humans are the sole architects of their destinies; consequences are direct results of conscious or unconscious choices that may be right or wrong, rational or irrational, propitious or inopportune. The concept of endeavor seems to be central in all cultures and societies, like the idea of ‘Karma’ which is fundamental in Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism. कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन’ was Sri Krishna’s advice to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukhestra – which roughly translates as ‘You have the right to perform your actions, but you are not entitled to the fruits of the actions.’ In other words, whatever the end results, we need to perform our duties. Work, toil, endeavor, achieve, conquer – these are some of the key words that have governed human society since time immemorial. Nothing else seems to be important for us to succeed.

“Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, echoing the opinions and beliefs which govern our societies even today. So then, how did the expressions like ‘good luck’, ‘bonne chance’, ‘buena suerte’, ‘Viel Glück’ etc. become part of our daily vocabulary, in almost all languages in the world? How did ‘luck’ sneak into a system that formally negates everything other than work and toil? The word ‘Luck’ made a late entrance into the English vocabulary at the end of the Middle Ages, replacing the older word ‘speed’. ‘Godspeed’ is still used as a word of farewell, especially to those embarking on a journey or a new endeavor. At what point of time did luck become something to reckon with? Webster’s dictionary defines luck as ‘a purposeless, unpredictable and uncontrollable force that shapes events favorably or unfavorably for an individual, group or cause’. Whether acknowledged or not, mankind has been conscious about this vaguely supernatural force from a very early date. The Roman goddess Fortuna, the Greek goddess Tyche, the Egyptian goddess Renenet, the Indian goddess Lakhsmi – all of them ancient, all of them representing luck or fortune, have been venerated by humans since the beginning of civilization. What is interesting is that in these religions, and probably in a lot of other ancient religions, they are all depicted as fickle, restless, and capricious. Rather like Lady Luck in Sinatra’s song. Then why does Webster include the word ‘purposeless’ for defining luck? Because of his upbringing?  – He was, after all, a pastor’s son. I suppose we’ll never know.

I chanced upon a saying attributed to Ovid while preparing to write this article: “Luck affects everything. Let your hook always be cast; in the stream where you least expect it there will be a fish”. A very interesting point of view, in my opinion, that nicely combines the concept of chance and effort. The hook needs indeed be cast to harvest what luck or chance or fortune offers at any moment – this is in fact ‘preparedness’ meeting ‘opportunity’ (Seneca), combined with the intangible, and often unexplainable factor that offers this opportunity to some and not to others. I am a firm believer in luck. How else can one explain people winning lotteries, getting six numbers right, where the probability of winning is often in the epsilon neighborhood? Statisticians would describe them as a random phenomenon which can’t be explained fully. How does one explain the narrow escapes people have from accidents, fires or natural catastrophes because of some unprecedented problems or delays? Or for the victims of accidents or crimes because they found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is there a rational explanation for chance encounters that change our lives for better or for worse? Can anyone honestly say that luck – good or bad- has never played an important role in their lives? I think not. Like Francois de La Rochefoucauld, I too believe that ‘though nature be ever so generous, yet can she not make a hero alone. Fortune must contribute her part too; and till both concur, the work cannot be perfected’. I think all of us have experienced that particular moment that we seized or did not seize, that remain etched in our memory because of the consequence. Have we not used the words ‘If only’ thousands of times in our lives? Haven’t we bought lottery tickets or participated in a lucky draw or placed our bet on something? And though such things are often done in a relatively lighthearted way with no major consequences in our lives – we still do it.

This brings us to the subject of those who have this passionate faith in luck and go to great lengths to keep the capricious force on their side. They woo lady luck with lucky charms – wearing a talisman around the neck, a ring with a specific stone on the fingers, a horse shoe on the top of the door, a four leaf clover, an Ashtamangala…A large number of acts, often qualified as superstitions, are performed by us automatically with the purpose of keeping bad luck at bay. There is an onslaught on buying lottery tickets if the draw falls on a Friday the 13th – even occasional buyers crowd the newsagents to buy a ticket; ‘just on the outside chance’ they say jokingly. But is it really a joke? I have my doubts.

I believe in luck, but I do not believe in luck alone. Fortune favors the bold, the industrious, and the entrepreneur – there can be no doubt about that. “Come what may, all bad fortune is to be conquered by endurance” said Virgil. “If fortune favors you do not be elated; if she frowns do not despond” said the Roman poet and rhetorician Ausonius. All very wise words and I think most of us go through life with a more or less balanced combination of endeavor and hope. I think we shall continue to believe in luck, lucky breaks, and lucky chances, in the kind smile of fortune bestowed on us from time to time. Because that is hope and without hope life would indeed be bleak.
Good luck to all of you.

‘May the odds be ever in your favor! ‘


[APARAJITA SEN]

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