Once in awhile, when I come up for air from my habitual immersion in what I think are my problems, I realize that I am the luckiest woman on Earth. OK, I’m not rich or famous or drop-dead gorgeous or even particularly remarkable. As humans go, I’m well-meaning but no saint. I’m abundantly flawed. But also abundantly fortunate, when I stop for a second to recognize it. Perhaps you are similarly blessed. Because that’s the thing with good luck: as capricious as it may seem, it’s has no actual limit, so there are millions of us luckiest people on Earth walking around. And perhaps, like me, you sometimes also have trouble accepting your good fortune.
Try substituting the term grace for luck. They may be the same thing, although luck seems like grace’s trashy cousin, the one that buys friendship by dispensing money and favors, the one we try to lure with gaudy tokens and odd rituals. When it comes to luck, we’re like pigeons in a Skinner box, vulnerable to random reinforcement, apt to be conditioned into doing nonsensical things like throwing salt over our shoulders or blowing on playing cards. When luck does show up in some way we can perceive — we win the lottery or we find our lost sunglasses — we can just about convince ourselves that we did something to summon it.
Grace is a different story, or it feels that way. We are told there is nothing we can do to earn it, nothing we can be that is good enough to deserve it and no mistake we can make that is bad enough to lose it. It’s just there, like the rain that falleth upon the just and the unjust. It’s mysterious and deeply puzzling. Luck feels human; grace is divine.
Who knows why I get to dwell in my healthy body, in a comfortable house in a lovely town in a beautiful valley, surrounded by intelligent, fun-loving friends, partnered with my beloved better half, who just this morning made me organic, whole-grain, roll-your-socks-up-and-down-they’re-so-good blueberry pancakes (which I meant to take a photo of but I ate them all first)? I did nothing to deserve all this. I am not one scintilla more worthy than the multitudes of people currently sharing the planet who struggle through their days unsheltered, unloved, unfed, victims of disaster or heartless governance or simply our human inability to extend grace to one another. And yet, here I am, grateful but bewildered.
A wise woman I once knew told a story of becoming seriously ill while traveling in a foreign country. Feverish and scared, she asked the friend who was traveling with her — luckily, a nurse by profession — the question we often have when things go terribly wrong: “Why me?”
Her friend, also a wise woman, replied, “Why not you?”
That story has stuck with me for years. It has come to my aid many times when I’ve felt at odds with my experience, whether that involved a dying car battery or a dying dream or a dying loved one. All of those things, I remind myself, are part of the whole package, the “full catastrophe” of being, as Zorba the Greek would say. Lousy, badly timed, unfair, tragic things happen. Why to me? Why to anybody? That’s life; that’s just the way it is. The roller coaster doesn’t only go uphill.
The same is true for what we call good fortune. Why do I get pancakes and sunshine and crazy wonderful love? Why me? Same non-answer: why not me? To deny oneself the blessings life bestows is a false modesty, a turning away from grace, a refusal of the gift. Maybe we think that if we don’t allow ourselves to climb so high, we won’t come plunging down, as though the roller coaster were ours to control. But when we do that, all we do is miss the view from the top of the hill.