Busted Brains, Broken Backs, and Hungry Bears: the Anatomy of Luck

A ventilator breathed for the 14-year-old boy in the bed next to mine at Massachusetts General Hospital’s intensive-care unit. Jared had been celebrating the Fourth of July with his family at the beach. It was a perfect summer day on Cape Cod – sunny and hot. He’d run through the water to dive into the waves like so many have done in our oceans. But his angle wasn’t right. Or a swell pushed him off balance. Or the Atlantic tide had created an irregular dune beneath the water. Whatever the cause, Jared’s forehead connected with the sandy bottom. His skinny teen body followed, bent his neck back, and severed his spinal cord.

I never got my helmet back, but I was told it looked something like this.

I never got my helmet back, but I was told it looked something like this. Probably saved my life. Unfortunately, Jared had nothing to protect his spine.

On the same summer afternoon that Jared’s paltry weight broke his neck, I’d been hit head-on by a car doing thirty miles per hour. My bicycle and I shattered against two tons of steel and tempered glass.

Jared, my neighbor in Mass-General’s ICU, was paralyzed from the neck down. I don’t know if he’s alive 15 years later. If so, he is still paralyzed. Meanwhile, after a couple months of physical and speech therapy following my accident, I went to college as planned. I got back on my bicycle. I held books in my hands and wrote papers and embarked on the rest of my life.

How did I escape Jared’s fate?

I have no reasonable explanation. I have nothing to credit with my good fortune and Jared’s rotten break.

Not just this once either. I own a vast catalog of moments when the universe didn’t crush me. Like that day I plummeted headfirst through a hatch in our three-story treehouse and walked away unscathed. Like that time I accidentally shot my step-brother with a bow and arrow, but the arrow was denied entry to a lung by one skinny rib. Like the fall I took rock climbing when my belayer had only just grabbed the rope again after getting stabbed with cactus spines that had been hitchhiking on the rope. The list goes on and on.

I’m not alone. I imagine that, like me, you’ve fortuitously dodged some bullets in your day. And some you haven’t.

My beautiful and vibrant friend Erica Kutcher was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a freak avalanche killed her while on a hike in the Himalaya.

My beautiful and vibrant friend Erica Kutcher was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a freak avalanche killed her while on a hike in the Himalaya.

As time passes, I more deeply understand how we’re at the whim of forces beyond our control. Everything – motorists passing on the highways and meteorites plummeting toward Earth and freak irregularities of beach sand – it all unfolds here with a complexity that defies pat comprehension.

Still, many people claim to understand and pretend to be masters of fate. Thomas Jefferson said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Diligence is the mother of good luck.” Anne Tyler, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, said, “People always call it luck when you’ve acted more sensibly than they have.”  Lucky people say these things as if hard work and good sense are a recipe for serendipity. Tell that to Sudanese children born into abject poverty, disease, and malnutrition. Explain sensible acts to homeless families in LA who own zero resources – financial or scholarly. Expect more from women subjugated by ISIS in a land from which there is no escape. Criticize that eighteen-year-old for poor judgement when he contracted a rare and fatal brain cancer. The award for supreme arrogance goes to Earl Wilson, who said, “Success is simply a matter of luck. Ask any failure.” The blindness required to make such a statement is also just another product of happenstance. Mr. Wilson simply hasn’t had the opportunity or insight to see that the clockwork of the universe does not hinge on our petty desires as we scurry around in search of food, money, and love.

A friend of mine recently wrote: “I’m not a big fan of the term ‘luck.’” I share his discomfort with the notion of fate or destiny. And I also acknowledge that people everywhere should make good choices. However, I just don’t know what else to call this thing that keeps us alive… for now.

The more one delves without prejudice into the causes of life’s twists and turns, the more random they seem. Accident and serendipity are doled out with perfect irregularity, which provides a somewhat irksome explanation as to why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Solace might be found, I suppose, in the idea that strokes of misfortune aren’t aimed with malicious intent. But by the same token, we must also acknowledge that no credit or praise is due when a lucky break falls into our lap.

I happen to agree completely with Larry King on this point, who said, “Those who have succeeded at anything and don’t mention luck are kidding themselves.”

bear

My close encounter with a hungry Black bear last summer in British Columbia left me at a loss to explain why the bear chose to pursue three other people instead of me.

It’s easy to kid ourselves. After all, a strong illusion holds my world together. It’s the illusion of control. I choose this. I allow that. I plan this. I expect that. I think of my life as a clock, and I am the time-keeper. Every now and then, though, when a rock falls nearby at the crag or when a bear steps from behind a boulder to stare at me hungrily or when my phone rings in the middle of the night, I remember that I am but a small boat on a wild and changeable sea.

That collision with an automobile pushed me right to the edge. In the end, I walked away with a shattered helmet, a few deficits of memory, and a jaw that’s a little cockeyed. Even fifteen years after getting crushed by that car, I still have only one story to tell. It is a story of luck — in every sense, good and bad. It is the same story that moves my fingers on this keyboard and recently broke my friend’s back and engineered your remarkable eyes. We are pinballs in a crazy game of life, whether we want to believe it or not.

For the time being, I’m going to embrace the one thing that makes more sense to me with each turn of this planet: gratitude. We live on a tsunami of happenstance. Riding this crest, I will dissolve into appreciation, because anxiety about things outside my control only robs these days of their terrifying and precious beauty.

Forget fear. I will run. I will breathe. I will laugh. And cry. I will take chances and love people and be awestruck by the tree outside my window and my wife’s perfect smile. I will appreciate every goddamn moment given to me by this savage universe. I will do these things until my luck runs out. And I will do it all with the hope that a kind destiny favors my path and yours.

Megan smiling in the right place at the right time.

Megan smiling in the right place at the right time.

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6 thoughts on “Busted Brains, Broken Backs, and Hungry Bears: the Anatomy of Luck

  1. The illusion of control feels almost instinctual in us. To feel that things happen for a reason. Thinking anything else requires too much cognitive energy and creates anxiety and discourages motivated action to try to do anything in the face of the randomness and chaos of life. Hardly adaptive, right?

    • Yes, from a biological standpoint, it’s not a surprising phenomenon to believe and act as if we are in control. However, as I pointed out to a friend, some experiments have found that even our “choices” are made (somewhere in the brain) before we’re actually aware of them. Perhaps that awareness makes humans unique, whereas other species may simply act without that feeling of coming to deliberate, personal decisions. And perhaps that’s why our moral instrumentation is so sensitive and complex compared to other species – because we believe so strongly in our own and other people’s free agency.

  2. I hate feeling (and probably being) so callous. At some strange level I envy you for all the trials and terror life has thrown at you. My life often feels vapid. I wish I could more fully come to the state where you are at, riding the crest of chaos with appreciation and wonder all the time. I’m aware that there is something in me that can be termed a will, but whatever it is, it is buried under many layers of complex biological systems that have an inertia all their own which leaves me continually dragged back to a state of depression and dis-interested inactivity. It makes me wonder if it would take some traumatic or otherwise life changing event to crack the biological inertia. That might give me some space to let whatever my will consists of work on starting the inertia out in a better direction. But then again, even as a will, it is pretty unlikely to actually desire something like getting in a head on collision with a car.

    My life feels much less like a tossing sea, and more like a powerful but barely noticeable eddy dragging me back to the same spot, witnessing the same swirling empty horizon, just waiting with indifferent unending attrition for me to give up and sink under.

    I just wish a little extra luck would come my way so I can see something else interesting before I drown.

    • This comment includes some great writing. Depressing but great. 😉
      Ultimately, does anything matter? Our lives? Our activities? Our accomplishments or dreams? Nah. I’m not going to pretend that these things do matter in the grand scheme of things. But making a habit out of striving for little insignificant gains can actually enrich life. This is why I advocate for sporty leisure activities, especially strongly stimulating ones like rock climbing and surfing and kayaking. For a time, even a few hours, we can paddle out of that eddy and rip through the whitewater. And that makes life feel a lot luckier all the way around.

      • ahh yes, the psilocybin episode. Nothing has made me more apt to try something mind altering than this episode. Sadly, I completely lack any other proclivity for drugs, and even if I did, I am currently financially stuck living as a married man in my parents home by which I am completely lacking the proper safe and accepting environment that would allow me to experiment with such things. I am a secret agnostic/ nihilist living in a predominantly Mormon household, a tragedy that you can probably relate to somewhat, seeing as you live in the Mormon capital state that I just recently escaped. Quite funny actually, philosophy courses at BYU is what supplied the final few straws of burden to my already breaking faith.

        In either case. Perhaps, as the weather gets better around here, I should make some attempt to get back into parkour on the weekends. This area is rather flat and rock climbing is hard to come by, though I agree, I did enjoy it with friends while I was in Utah.

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