What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

When you think about how you got where you were, or why other people’s situations are different, how often do you think about luck?  Maybe you feel sorry for people in tough situations, but you can’t help thinking that it’s partly their fault–after all, if they didn’t have a good job lined up, they shouldn’t have gotten into so much debt…if they needed a job so badly, they should have worked harder at applying…if they wanted to live in a better neighborhood, they shouldn’t have dropped out of high school…if they weren’t in a position to get pregnant, they shouldn’t have been screwing around.

I’ve had these thoughts.  But the older I get, the more I realize how little good decisions have to do with it.  There’s a certain logic behind that horrible bumpersticker, “if you can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em”–but only if the person with the bumpersticker has never made any sexual mistakes himself.  For every couple shamed for an unmarried pregnancy, there’s a dozen more who weren’t chaste either, but who were lucky enough to never get pregnant, so no one ever found out; and there are hundreds more who made equally serious mistakes, but luckily they weren’t the kind of mistakes that cause such a public crisis.  I’ve talked to someone who thought he had the right to judge people on welfare, because he himself had “never made any poor economic decisions.”  Really?  My guess would be that he did, but that he could afford to, or someone bailed him out.  If not, I’m willing to bet he’s made other kinds of mistakes, just like everyone else has; he’s just lucky enough that they didn’t result in poverty.

Here’s another example: I recently heard from a woman who panhandles for a living, who said that she was very willing to work, but it was hard to get a job because she had shoplifting on her record from when she was 16.  Now sure, that was her fault; but what were you doing when you were 16?  I did plenty of stupid things; I’m just lucky that none of them were illegal.

This runs the other way, too: instead of judging people for making poor decisions, it’s easy to become insecure and bitter over people who didn’t work any harder than you, but happened to have the right connections to land a better job, or the family help they needed to put a down payment on their dream house.  It’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong, like you should be working harder, because your situation is so much worse than theirs.  But as my brother pointed out, if you’re living thriftily and working hard, but you still can’t make ends meet without some help, that’s not a problem with you.  It’s a problem with the system (or the economy, or probably just the whole fallen world). But the myth of hard work=prosperity still exists, and it’s so pervasive that we don’t even realize we’ve bought into it. Bill O’Reilly put it very succinctly when he said:

you gotta look people in the eye and tell ’em they’re irresponsible and lazy…Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period.(Quoted in this excellent article, in which I actually agree with Obama about something)

I certainly find myself thinking this way sometimes.  But I’m here to say that I work hard, and I’m well educated, and I’m still poor.  It’s not even just about hard work and responsibility; it’s about a lot more subtle things, like upbringing and family history.  I’m not trying to say that you can blame your shortcomings on society; but I think people are so eager to reject that line of thinking that they rush to the other extreme, and act as if your upbringing and your surroundings have nothing to do with it.  If you think about it, you’re not just lucky if you’re well-educated and have a decent job; you’re lucky if your parents taught you how to save money.  You’re lucky if your parents showed you how to work hard.  You’re lucky if your parents spoke English at home.   You’re lucky if you grew up in a good neighborhood, with good influences.  You’re lucky if your parents stayed married.

I don’t know why God allows some people to have such bad luck.  But I know He doesn’t look kindly on people who attribute bad luck to moral failing.  That’s the way people thought in the Old Testament, and it’s still alive today, in the “prosperity Gospel” and in conservative ideology.  In the Book of Job, Job’s “comforters” try to convince him that he’s harboring some secret sin, and that’s what he’s being punished for.  After all, God punishes evildoers and rewards the righteous.  But Job consistently affirms his innocence, even though he doesn’t understand why God is letting him suffer.  If we believe that poor people are necessarily poor because of their own shortcomings, we’re just as bad as Job’s friends or Joel Osteen.

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