Unfolding the Map
When do we have bad luck, or good luck? Or is there luck at all? As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) writes about the ill-timing and bad luck of Judge William Hancock during the Revolutionary War, I will reflect on my feelings about bad luck. Hopefully, you won't feel that you came across this post by way of bad luck, but if you want to feel lucky and find the spot where all this occurs, please take a risk and look at the map. Why the horse at right? It's New Jersey's state animal.
"Judge William Hancock, wealthy and influential, had no luck at all in his last year. In 1734 at Hancock's Bridge, a few miles northwest of Greenwich, he built a grand house that he later had to flee from when militiamen took over south Jersey. On the night of March 20, 1778, as Tories regained the area, the Loyalist judge elected to slip back; he didn't know that nearly a hundred revolutionists were bivouacked in his house. They captured him. Hancock probably would have been safe in the hands of his enemies had two hundred green-coated Loyalists not decided to retake the place that same night. They surprised the patriots in their sleep and bayoneted them even as the men begged for quarter. In the dark mayhem, Hancock's confederates killed him too. The house still stands, a monument to the judge's ill timing."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 12
Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey
When is something truly bad luck? When is it a random occurrence that strikes one? What role does choice play in our bad luck? Or, is luck just luck and there is no good or bad about it?
I remember the stories I was told as a child. Don't let a black cat cross your path or it will lead to bad luck. Don't walk under ladders. Don't let a pole pass between you and someone else. Don't break a mirror or open an umbrella indoors. Step on a crack, break your mother's back. If you did any of these things, then you would be hit with a flood of bad luck. I guess if I had done all of those things at the same time, I would have been inundated by a tsunami of bad luck.
I think that sometimes true bad luck happens. We somehow fall into the seemingly random patterns of the universe and we end up in a place where bad things happen. For example, I might leave the house and get into the car at a certain time on a certain morning. I might drive down my street and just happen to hit the intersection at a stop light at the same time as a habitual runner of stop signs (there seem to be many on my street at one particular place). Result, major fender-bender. That person may just happen to not have insurance, and therefore I not only lose my car to repairs (or maybe totally) but my insurance also takes a big hit.
That happens, and will happen quite a few times in our lives. Sometimes, it is simply an annoyance, like being stuck in airports for hours on a day where storms cause major disruptions in air travel, or an accident on the freeway snarls people up in traffic. Sometimes it is more serious and leads to monetary loss, or minor injury, or broken relationships. Once in awhile, this randomness could lead to serious injury or death because one is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm reminded of the recent shootings in a theater in Aurora, Colorado and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
However, I do find it interesting that sometimes what is blamed for bad luck is just the endpoint of a series of choices that we've made and that if we trace those choices back, we can most likely find the point where the choice took us down a path that guaranteed that bad things would happen. For example, I once met a woman who complained about her bad luck in men. Her life was a series of relationship disasters. And yet, if you look at the choices she made, and the actions she took in those relationships, one could easily see that her "bad luck" came always by her choices. The men she picked, the actions she took once in the relationship, all led to bad endings. Is that really bad luck?
We have to acknowledge that conscious choices play a part in a lot of what we call bad luck. I believe that most of what we call bad luck is the intersection of three elements: the information we have, the patterns that we get ourselves locked into, and the level of risk we are willing to take. These three things guide the choices we make. A gambler may complain about her bad luck in gambling, but a gambler relies on all of these things. She looks around the card table and reads the other players while taking into account her own hand. She has certain ways of playing certain hands and therefore a pattern emerges in her playing. She also may be a risk-acceptant or risk-averse person. If she is a risk-acceptant person, she may play a bit more loosely, a bit more recklessly. All of these elements add up to the choices she makes in her play, which will have an effect on her winnings. In essence, this is not luck. Luck may play a small part in the equation, but most of the outcomes will come down to her decision to fold or stay, raise or call. Often, you will hear a card player say that they "should have" done something else, indicating that they made a decision that led to the outcome.
If I look back on my life, and I could see all the instances where I felt myself victimized by bad luck, chances are that I could examine my choices and find that it was my decision-making and not luck that led me to most of my difficult circumstances. Sure, bad luck has happened to me, but not in the quantity that I would like to think. I have not been victimized regularly by the universe. The universe has no desires, wishes nor feelings - it just is. It acts according to its laws and patterns automatically.
We, on the other hand, are not automatic. We make choices based on information, our own patterns, and our sense of risk and that means that many times, we will make wrong decisions. If there's anything that I've learned, it's this: One is better equipped to head off "bad luck" if one makes decisions with more information than less. The more you know about any situation, and the more you know about yourself, less randomness will accompany your choices and therefore, the better your luck.
I happened to find a list of songs about bad luck. You can find the list here. And here's two off the list. The first is by Social Distortion called Bad Luck, because when you have bad luck nothing embodies it like some distorted electric guitar. The second is a rhythm and blues song by Earl King from New Orleans called Mr. Bad Luck, because New Orleans, in my opinion, sits on the boundary of all that we understand and don't understand in the world.
If you want to know more about Hancock's Bridge
Next up: Salem, New Jersey