Luck or Virtue?

Luck is an underestimated power in our daily universe. I remember the first time I had to think seriously about the power of luck. I was at the home of my thesis advisor and we were talking about my future. Since he was a literature guy and I am a literature guy (Huh?) and both of us had a strong interest in popular literature of an era vs. the official lexicon of literature studies, we were talking about Horatio Alger novels.

“The lesson everyone takes from them is hard work and determination lead to success,” said Dr. Richardson, “but every one of Alger’s heroes was lucky. And none of them aspired very high. In every single one of those stories the Alger hero meets a person who helps him. Luck. Of course, he’s always a good guy bringing in the point that virtue will be rewarded, but it’s not rewarded by luck. In real life, virtue might never be rewarded at all, and luck is luck. It’s not hard work and virtue in Alger’s books. It’s luck. You need some luck, Martha.”

My Horatio Alger novel. 🙂 The featured photo is the title page…


I thought at the time that I WAS lucky. Dr. Richardson was my thesis advisor. Wow!

I think the occasion was that I had actually, finally, finished my thesis to his and my satisfaction. I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was pondering law school and business school. There were no teaching jobs in Denver at that point. I was working full time at the University of Denver law school assisting the directors of development and alumni relations — fund-raising. I was doing PR writing, and I liked it. I was a volunteer teacher at a literacy program. It was all pretty good, but…

I’d essentially been thrown out of grad school. When most of my peers were given a third year, paid, with a Teaching Assistantship to write their thesis without the pressure of finding a job, I wasn’t. “We don’t think you’re quite the thing,” was the message of the department head who told me I’d let the Department down. I had been given a full ride and a teaching assistantship, but no more. Why? Because I hadn’t “performed” up to expectation. It wasn’t fair, but it wasn’t wrong. I might not have been the stellar student, but I wasn’t the worst. Along with grad school I had to end a marriage to an abusive husband. And, what’s more, I’d served as President of the Arts and Sciences Graduate Student council and organized an event that made money for the college. I had some small features. I was a popular teacher. My thesis was 100% original research. “We’ll let you remain a part of the department for year,” said the department head, “just in case you actually DO write a a thesis.” A year later when I brought him my finished thesis to sign off, he had no negative comments except a typo on some page.

“I didn’t think you could do it,” he said. What a fucker. I got mine, though. I didn’t have the money to have two extra (the university paid for one to put in the university library) copies of my thesis printed — one for the department library and one for me. I had one printed for the department and I stole it. 🙂

Still, there is really something different about me, and I have no idea what it is.

The problem with luck is we don’t always know when we’re having it. Looking back over my life I can see some of the moments when luck stepped in — and often it was preceded by misfortune. This is a common feature of luck, I think, leading to the saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Medieval people were all about luck, and that might be one of their charms for me. The Wheel of Fortune acknowledges that we just don’t have that much individual power over our lives, and it’s how we face the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that gives us a place in Heaven. I don’t know about Heaven, but how we approach the ups and downs of life certainly affects our happiness in the here and now.

22 thoughts on “Luck or Virtue?

  1. A salutary corrector to the messages we get daily: follow your passion, work hard day and night and your dreams will come true. But there’s another twist: some people notice the luck that comes their way and make the most of it. Others don’t. But maybe that’s also got an element of luck?

  2. I guess the theory is that good luck happens to everyone. The trick is to see opportunity when it arises and seize it.

    I think the reality is that oftentimes the luck – good or bad – simply happens or doesn’t. I define luck as that which you have no control over. The conditions of your birth or the socioeconomics of your family or your inherent talents. Even religion and political ideology are a matter of luck for most people – what they were born into and either accepted or rejected. The “luck” is not so much randomly bumbling into an opportunity but living in a space where such opportunities manifest, having the ability to see them, and having the resources to take advantage of them.

    Ecclesiastes 9:11
    “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.”

      • Thanks.

        WRT virtue being a factor…

        People overestimate the importance of virtue in their success because it makes them feel superior. (Others ascribe all their failures to bad luck so they don’t have to take responsibility for bad choices.) It reminds me of Frost in his poem. It starts out saying that he came to a fork in the road where of the two possible paths…

        And both that morning equally lay
        In leaves no step had trodden black.

        It ends up saying…

        I shall be telling this with a sigh
        Somewhere ages and ages hence:
        Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
        I took the one less traveled by,
        And that has made all the difference.

        In other words, he will be taking credit for making a reasoned choice when really it was dumb luck. Incredible level of self awareness.

        And then I see a television ad for an expensive car with a high profile actor behind the wheel solemnly pronouncing that he got where he was because he took the road less traveled. Heavy sigh!

        • I hate that poem. I had to analyze probably 20 times during my school years and what does it MEAN? “All the difference” – It’s like that cliche, “I just want to make a difference.” My students used to say that and I said, “I am 100% sure you will.” They thought they’d gotten a compliment. I’d just stated a fact. 😆 Inevitably we “make a difference.” We displace air, we exhale CO2, we take up space, we spread disease, etc. etc. Making a difference everywhere we go.

  3. Luck seems to have been a major factor in most of the biggest changes in my life. What seemed like “bad” luck at the time led to some great things. Or, as Albert King said: “Bad luck and trouble/My only friend/I been down ever since I was ten/Born under a bad sign/I been down since I began to crawl/If it wasn’t for bad luck/I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

  4. Along the Road – by Robert Browning Hamilton

    “I walked a mile with Pleasure,
    She chattered all the way,
    But left me none the wiser,
    For all she had to say.

    I walked a mile with Sorrow,
    And ne’er a word said she,
    But oh, the things I learned,
    When Sorrow walked with me” –

      • I try, hard, to not forget either – or focus on one/ignore the other – for myself? That’s the only way I can find, to move forward, onward, sometimes, and not get ‘lost’ in one or the other – 😀 Which is my other fave, “Not all who wander are lost” – I do love the beauty and…challenge? Of life ‘detours’ – sometimes – others, I feel desperate to get off the cloverleaf I’ve been driving around for 3 hours, and keep missing the exit I want – LOL

  5. Luck or fortune or opportunity who is to say whether it is good or bad? I make choices. I deal with the consequences. Sometimes it works out and other times no so much. Still on the whole my life has been charmed. I have owned my choices and so I can’t say that I have had bad luck…

  6. Many years ago we rented a cabin (the manager heated up two – one for us and one for another family) I walked inside and said, I don’t want this one. Everyone balked what??? It’s heated. That night a horrific storm blew in and took down a tree that crashed on the corner of the cabin we were to have been in. All the roads in and out were closed do to massive trees down. Luck?

    • I think it was that was Divine Providence. Luck is more ordinary like me losing a Saturday class and going to the university looking for work and learning they’d called me that morning at home. Coincidence is more like luck that your experience. Wow. Yours is like the time a friend and I got lost in the mountains so she was going to be late getting home. She was afraid she’d be in trouble with her partner at home. BUT it happened that if we’d been on that road when we were supposed to be, we’d have been in a multi-car fatal collision — 2 lane mountain road. When we got to that spot, the flight to life copters were still there. She got home and didn’t understand why her partner was crying and hugging her. Luck to have gotten lost? I took it to be the hand of God.

      • That’s amazing! Thank the hand of God in both instances yours and mine. Sorry I haven’t been around. I’ll see if I can find your email so I can talk privately with you because I value your friendship and time I hate that I’ve been neglectful. It bothers me. I was (all I can say here -distracted) Oh I’m going to be a great grandmother in 4 months! wow! how astounding is that!

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