Luck and gratitude
At this time of year I am always keenly aware of my good fortune. In particular, I am aware the huge role that sheer chance has played in the most pivotal episodes of my life. I met my wife because I went to a bar one random weeknight with my friend Peter, who was being set up with a girl. Turned out she was too shy to talk to him, so she talked to me to relieve the tension. (Sorry, Peter.) I got my job without a day’s experience in journalism or environmentalism — I just happened to see an ad for an assisant editor on Craiglist and my long, overwrought cover letter happened to reach the right person. I was Grist’s fifth full-time employee; I think we’re up to 25 or so.
I can think of a hundred reasons why I might have gone to some other bar that night and never met the shy girl who, it turned out, had also lived in Missoula and loved drinking canned beer and playing pool. Or why I might have gone to Monster.com instead of Craigslist and ended up back in my soul-sapping job writing marketing copy for Microsoft. Instead, I’m married to the coolest woman in the world, I have two smart, hilarious children, and I do meaningful, rewarding work every day. It’s just absurd luck, more than I conceivably deserve.
In psychology, there’s a phenomenon called attribution bias, and it goes like this: When something good happens to us, we tend to ascribe it to our own virtues and good decisions; when something bad happens to us, we tend to ascribe it to external circumstances. But when when it comes to other people, we don’t extend the same charity. We are more likely to ascribe the ill fortune of others to their character flaws and poor decisions.
Then there’s a phenomenon known by social psychologists as system justification. It is a “need and want to see prevailing social systems as fair and just” that affects not only those who benefit from prevailing social systems, but often those who don’t. In some sense we see those systems as part of our identity and treat attacks on them as attacks on ourselves and our security, even, ironically, if we are among those that have been neglected or harmed by those systems.
Taken together, it adds up to a strong tendency to see the suffering of others, and our own good fortune, as earned, deserved, and appropriate. We are built to radically underestimate the role of chance.
It is therefore an exercise of our moral imagination to lean against this inclination, to think deeply about the ways in which our own blessings trace back to good luck and the suffering of others to bad luck. Thinking this way is not to abandon the notions of merit and personal responsibility. It is only to temper them with notes of gratitude and generosity. We are all cast into this world with parents we didn’t choose, in places we didn’t choose, and are buffeted our entire lives by circumstances we don’t control. Anyone can lose a job. Anyone can get sick. Anyone can get behind on their bills. We all walk a thin line.
This is why we have government, why we have taxes, why we have social programs: to offer some buffer, some measure of security, against the caprices of fate. We cannot control the world but we can, at least to some degree, take care of one another.
So today I give thanks, not only for the extraordinary blessings in my own life, but for all those people out there who are paying their blessings forward, fighting to create a society in which no one, no matter their luck, is lost or forgotten.