Good Luck and Bad Luck

Good Luck / Bad Luck illustration

This weekend, I enjoyed reading Andrew Bisharat’s blog post called “The Games We Play.” Among other things, it talks about risk—in climbing, in more mundane activities like driving, and in life.

Andrew’s perspective on luck resonated with me. “It’s sometimes hard to know whether it’s working against you or actually on your side,” he writes, and then gives a series of examples to make his point. One in particular, about his alpinist friend’s knee injury potentially keeping him from a dangerous season in the mountains, read like a contemporary version of the old Chinese folk tale about a farmer and his horse

One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?’ A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills, and the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, ‘Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?’

Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought that was bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?’

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off…

Which of these events was lucky and which was unlucky? It’s impossible to tell at the time and a waste of psychic energy to worry about it much. We create our own burdens when we curse and celebrate every event through which we pass.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try hard. Work is critical—hard work doubly so—but there’s no need to see it as a burden. Instead it’s a privilege that we might try to perfect ourselves and work through the challenges life presents us.

Another example: In the late 90s, a dedicated climber named Josh was injured and had to sit out a season bouldering in the Gunks. It was an important moment for climbing in the area, relatively speaking, and Josh wouldn’t get to be a part of it. Bad luck, of course! But then Josh picked up a camera and made a video about his friends bouldering in the Gunks. The video was called Big UP, and it was the first step in what has become a very accomplished career behind the lens.

“One dream may hide another,” wrote the poet Kenneth Koch. When he was in full health, Josh’s dream of climbing might well have hidden the dream of telling climbing stories through video—a related but very different dream. His pain and injury uncovered this other dream, which perhaps was the more significant of the two.

It’s something to keep in mind the next time your project is chewing you up and spitting you off. Forego the wailing wobbler and instead consider falling as a sign that the climb still has something valuable to teach you. Therefore, the most appropriate response is to smile—because you have this chance to improve, because you’re climbing, because you’re alive at all, damnit!

Without fail, life will throw the kitchen sink at every one of us—how we see this and respond is what creates the “good” and the “bad” of it. On the one hand, this means we have much less control over our lives than we might think. On the other, we have much more control over ourselves than we care to admit.

Now is this good luck or bad luck?

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