I have had numerous opportunities to think about how fortunate I am. I am married to a wonderful woman wit whom I have an amazing daughter. We both have parents who worked hard to help us get good educations, and we have both been able to find jobs that let us use our skills and knowledge to provide a comfortable home for our family. We have access to many forms of leisure and entertainment, and we have a network of friends who provide us with joy and good company on many occasions. I mean, when I was a teenager I didn’t know how good I had it, and today I have it even better than I ever thought I would back then.
And as much as I am thankful for all of this, as much as I hope and work to keep building on this good fortune, it’s become very important to me to remind myself that I don’t deserve any of it. These wonderful things are not a prize I earned by completing some set of trials. They are the result of circumstances beyond my control combined with some good choices and lucky outcomes.
Have I worked hard and tried my best? Sure. Is it possible that I have worked harder or done more for others than some people who are materially better off than I am? It’s conceivable. But it’s also certainly true that there are others who have worked as hard or harder and don’t have nearly as much to show for it. As I sit here typing and listening to music, am I more deserving of this luxury than the person who worked in a factory to put together the chips for my computer and iPod? When my family decides to go out for hamburgers, have I scored more points in the game of life than the agricultural workers who got those ingredients on their way from the fields? When I hug my daughter to help her through a cold, am I somehow proving myself a better parent than the mother or father who has to watch their child struggle through cancer or some other disease? No. You can’t look at the scoreboard and say who’s better or who deserves more. The world’s too messy and complicated for that. Sometimes life deals you a great hand, sometimes it doesn’t, and no matter how much we try to work the odds in our favor, we don’t hold the deck. Here are a couple of examples.
Pattie and I met on her first day at Fordham. With one brief exception, I didn’t see her again for a year, until she decided to start writing for the features section of the school paper while I was features editor. If I had a different job – which I had originally applied for – or if I had quit the newspaper – which I had seriously considered a few months before – would I be here now? I don’t know. Maybe it would have worked out some other way. And I give myself credit for taking advantage of the opportunity when it came up, but there was so much out of my control that was required to get to that point that I am not going to claim that I have earned the happiness this relationship has given me for the last 16 years.
I went to a high school that introduced me to a lot of friends and mentors and was absolutely essential in giving me the chance to grow into a responsible adult. I worked hard in school, got good grades and did most of the stuff I was told to do, and spent a lot of time on activities. But when I think back to the things that had to happen for me to get to that school – from my mother insisting that I take the entrance test when I had no desire to do so, to an administrator who was willing to go several extra miles to get me an affordable aid package to afford the tuition, to living in a neighborhood that made it a relatively easy school to get to in the first place – there’s no way that I can say that everything I gained there is because of something I did.
Now, why am I harping on this point? I am not trying to rub my good fortune in anyone’s face. Instead, I’m doing it to remind myself, and urge everyone, to look at the world with humility. The universe gives some of us more than we “deserve.” I’d argue that anyone who has had some success and happiness can point to those moments where the world lined up in our favor. Maybe we did something to give circumstances a nudge, and if so we can give ourselves a pat on the back. But we shouldn’t confuse that nudge with the whole lift. If we assume that everything that we have is solely the result of our own actions, then it becomes easy to take the next step and assume that anyone who is less fortunate must be less fortunate because of their own actions. Then we have no responsibility to figure out how we can help them, and no need to sacrifice anything of our own. Indeed, to do so would be to interfere with the fairness of the universe in giving everyone what they deserve! But if we’re humble and appreciative of what we have, we are more likely put ourselves in each other’s shoes and try to build a world that works better for all of us.
This humility can be scary, because it forces us to accept that we are not always the masters of our destiny. Our hopes and dreams and work and ambitions can be torn away in a matter of seconds, just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They may lay unfulfilled because we never find the right environment to nurture them. They may be cut short because of some quirk of our genes. When you spend a few minutes thinking of all of the things that can go wrong, it can seem like a miracle that anything ever goes right. But rather than being a reason to give into despair or resignation, I think that this humility and appreciation for the universe’s capriciousness can motivate us to reach out and share our good fortune, or lift up those who have been brought low by tragedy or circumstance. And when we do that, we leave the world a little bit better than we found it. Since the world has given so much to me, I think the world deserves it.