We humans are a foolish species. We believe our fates are somehow tied to our individual agency. Our culture is deeply imbued with the sense that anyone can achieve success if they just try hard enough. Hollywood loves stories of the poor and uneducated overcoming tremendous odds to realize the American Dream — whatever that is today. This ethos is a central tenant of conservative economic orthodoxy. Many believe that if they can overcome the handicaps of a college education and a middle-class, two-parent upbringing, then anyone can. We give ourselves way too much credit when we are successful, and way too much blame when we are not.
Recall that each of us is, as described by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger “thrown into the world.” We aren’t there, until we are. We have no say as to who are parents are, where we are born, or when we are born. We have an equal chance to be born to a Chinese ballet dancer or an American opioid addict.
Each of us is provided a genetic package and a wired brain that science only barely understands. Some of us have brains that are good for math. Some of us have no empathy. Some of us have serious food allergies. Some of us can run really fast. I was born missing the pet gene.
In addition to nature, there is nurture. Again there is an utter randomness to it all. Recall that for at least the first 10 years of our lives we are almost completely at the whim and mercy of others. Like Blanche DuBois, we are dependent upon the kindness of others. Our nutrition, education, socialization, morals, preferences — everything really — is shaped during these powerfully formative years. Our control is minimal. If we are lucky during the course of our lives, we avoid economic disaster, sudden accidental death or maiming, drug addiction, the mental or physical illness of ourselves or loved ones. Some gotta win. Some gotta lose.
Eventually, we become emancipated in the sense of reaching a certain legal age. Now we’re on our own. Hardly. The barely understood relationship between nature and nurture we now carry with us for the rest of our years. No doubt we change for the better or for the worse, but those transformations are inextricably tied to a past we really had no control over. The disposition to persevere or quit, to be brave or cowardly, to be selfish or selfless, to have faith or not were never really within our control no matter how much we want to believe otherwise.
What we do is a result of who we are. Who we are was never our doing. We really want to believe our lives are shaped by us, but alas I suspect random chance is a far more powerful influence.
If this is so, it is not a sad thing because this truth should set us free. Ego must be a necessary casualty. Pride goeth before the luck. Compassion should be ascendant because those less well off are exemplars of what could have been us had the cosmic roulette wheel stopped on a different color.
Contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson in his essay “Luck swallows everything” notes: “For whatever one actually does, one will do what one does because of the way one is, and the way one is, is something for which one neither is nor can be responsible, however self-consciously aware of one’s situation one is.”