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Luck: The Key to Success

Here's a "bleeding heart liberal" song from the 1960's, sung by one the great voices of the time.

"I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them."  (Ecclesiastes 9: 11-12)

For the first time, after about ten years of college teaching, I have a blind student in one of my classes this semester. After each of the first two class meetings, I talked to him for a while in order to figure out what he might need in order to make the class more accessible. In one of these conversations, he mentioned that he had only been blind for about three years. When I asked him what happened, he said that he just woke up one morning blind. The doctors said that it was the result of glaucoma, but prior to this time, there had been no indication of a problem.

A few thoughts flooded through my mind after this conversation. The prevailing thought, however, was that life is basically a crapshoot. Three years ago, without any warning, this man woke up blind. Meanwhile, I woke up on that same day just as any other day. I still get to see sunsets, my children smile, Laker games, and racquetballs flying toward me. He will most likely never again have the opportunity to see the people and things that he loves, and he never got the chance to take one last look around. Now some would say that there is some sort of meaning in all of this. It is all a part of some divine plan, and I should be thankful for my many blessings. But personally, I have trouble being thankful that someone else became blind instead of me, and any claims to finding meaning or patterns in the chaos seem like intellectual suicide.

My good fortune, however, does not end with my continuing ability to see. I was, after all, born healthy to a middle-class, loving, American family in the late 20th century. If you were to change even one of the circumstances just listed, then I am probably not sitting here typing this blog. If I were born prior to the 20th century, then there is a good chance that I would have been dead before the age of five. If I were born to abusive parents, in a poverty-stricken nation, or with a physical or mental disability, then my life today – if I were still around – would be quite different. By any reasonable standard, I won the lottery. And while I have worked hard to achieve a certain amount of success, my fate is largely due to luck, and my future prospects were somewhat determined on the moment that I was first conceived. Of course, as the blind student in my class discovered, your luck can change at any moment.

So what does one do with this not so comforting reality? Clearly, my new student has decided to keep on living by pursuing a college degree. I should take my cue from him. Instead of wallowing in guilt and pity in response to those who are less fortunate, I should take advantage of my good fortune and make myself useful. My new student, along with all who suffer from misfortune, does not need my pity. He needs me to help him learn some history.

So the next time that you see me on this blog complaining a bit too much about the lingering pain in my left arm, my inability to land a full-time job, or a shortage of adequate writing time, feel free to electronically slap me upside the head. There are, after all, a lot of people out there with some real problems.


  1. Excellent post.

    I spend my life bemoaning what I haven't accomplished and then getting hit in the head over how lucky I am. It takes people like your student to make us remember to savor the good in our lives.

    Like you, I had an "Aha!" moment in August. I tried to write two posts, but was embarrassed by their sheer whininess. That night, I went to my husband's work friend's home. His daughter has incurable cancer. It forced me to remember my good fortune. And it made me create a blog contest to raise money for the father's cancer foundation.

    It never ceases to amaze me how resilient people can be in the face of adversity. Like this father and daughter. Like your blind student. It's easy to make excuses, by how much better to find solutions.

  2. Haha! I'll keep that in mind. Most of us have good lives because of luck, but my primary boyfriend went through a phase where he lost everything good he had just for pissing off one professor. It really changes your view on the world when you're not just lucky anymore and you worked hard to pull things back together.

  3. Kari, you must be careful of us professors.

    Theresa, I go back and forth as well. A quick reality check can be a good kick in the butt.


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