When I was a teenager, I thought life was governed by destiny. Destiny was one of my favourite subjects and I loved movies like ‘Only You’ and stories like the one told by the man who appeared on Oprah claiming he and his wife had first met in a concentration camp during the Holocaust and had later been set up on a blind date in New York City (this story later turned out to be a hoax). Perhaps as a teenager with little control over the world, it made sense to embrace a feeling of surrender to something larger.
Now in my mid thirties, I’m convinced that most things come about through luck. This isn’t to dismiss the value of hard work or a good work ethic; this isn’t to install hopelessness in the unlucky; but it seems to me that genetics, birth, and coincidence shoulder a large part of the burden.
What is similar about luck and destiny is the lack of agency they afford. So very little is under our control when you think about it, perhaps save, as Viktor Frankl suggests, our response to events; “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way”. Viktor Frankl is inspiring, however I think the myth of agency can be extremely disempowering. That is to say, sometimes I’m not so sure we can change even our attitude. More on the shortcomings of the positive psychology movement at another time though.
So if we take it as a given that our lives are dominated by luck, accidents of birth, DNA strands intertwined in particular combinations and then further modified by additional environmental conditions, it’s fair to say that some people are luckier than others. Some are lucky in love, some are lucky with money, some are blessed with supportive families, good skin, quick minds, resilience, a fast metabolism.
Personally I feel I have been lucky in many ways. One of my dearest friends likes to call me pobre con suerte, meaning that I have not always been so lucky with money but my general luckiness in life has cancelled out this lack. Better to have luck than money.
I have been particularly lucky when it comes to friendship. I know how obnoxious this might sound, but with regards to friends, my life has been an embarrassment of riches. I see this as a form of privilege, it is a relational privilege, and I want to own it. In third grade I had no friends and spent lunch hour gripping the chain link fence that circled the school, my hands smelling sweet like pennies for the rest of the day. In tenth grade, I was socially ostracized by my friends when I needed them most and for no apparent reason and I have had my share of bullies over the years. But bullying is another thing altogether, and the ebbs and flows of friendship are an expected part of childhood.
As an adult, I’ve been lucky both in the quantity and the quality of my friendships. I’ve been able to walk in on most any crowd and emerge with a friend. When I look around at people my age who are buying and selling and renovating houses and driving nice cars with leather interiors, I am in awe. I feel I must have missed a class, a book, some crucial piece of information somewhere along the line that would have helped me to realize these things for myself. I see myself as I am and I see those with so-called together lives, and the space feels gaping. I have never been able to figure it out, and at 35 I have absolutely no idea how a person gets from here to there. Perhaps those people over there have been lucky in career and in money. But if there is a similar key that unlocks the doors to strong, dependable, loyal friendships-somewhere along the way I picked up that key.
This week I re-read Anne Patchett’s memoir Truth and Beauty. In it, Anne Patchett recounts the story of her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy. Lucy Grealy was lucky in the same way that I have been lucky. She spent her life surrounded by good people who loved her and helped her; took care of her during her many long hospital stays (she had endured a total of 38 surgeries at the time of her death in 2002); paid hospital bills; sorted through bags of unread bills; gave her soft places to land in Nashville, New York, and wherever she went in the world. Lucy Grealy however, was very unlucky in health. She was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma at the age of ten, at which time she underwent surgery on her jaw to remove the malignancy. She lost 1/3 of her jaw at the time and spent the rest of her life undergoing painful bone and skin grafts and reconstructive procedures, none of which succeeded in restoring her face to ‘normalcy’. Lucy Grealy died at the age of 39 of a heroine overdose, unlucky for both her and for the world who was thus robbed of both her person, and her literary genius. But Truth and Beauty is not the story of Lucy’s death, but rather the story of a friendship. Anne Patchett writes: “Our friendship was like our writing in some ways. It was the only thing that was interesting about our otherwise dull lives. We were better off when we were together. Together we were a small society of ambition and high ideals. We were tender and patient and kind. We were not like the world at all”.
This has got me to thinking about how friendship can be a radical act, or as Erin Wunker writes in her book Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, ” a counter to capitalist ideology”, “its own economy”.
To be continued…