I realize that I rely on luck in ways that are not altogether rational. Up to now I’ve been able to say — to myself, for one, a listener with whom it is often hard to argue — “Nothing serious ever happens to my health.” Sure, so far. Does that truly mean I can take my own health for granted?
So am I in fact protected from things like heart attacks, strokes, cancers of all kinds, diabetes — simply because I haven’t been afflicted with these before? Am I also protected against things like falls and the need for replacement hips and knees? Okay, what about death itself, a rather important outcome — can my previous record, my “past performance,” protect me from that which cancels the ability to fight diseases, drink wine, eat in restaurants and breathe — not to mention the ability to move from place to place (“travel”) while being aware of what’s interesting about where you are?
Medical authorities and many other sages would argue against my inclination.
Let’s take some newspaper headlines: a man of my age — actually a decade younger — dies of a heart attack. At once my own brain races to find elements that differentiate him from me: Wasn’t he a smoker, grossly overweight, or did he have an extraordinarily anxious job or home life or something, surely? The purpose of the search is to, supposedly, reduce my vulnerability to death on the grounds that I don’t have the conditions or disadvantages of those who have succumbed to it.
Driving home on Geary, San Francisco’s inflamed artery out of downtown, it’s luck to count on the articulated bus eighteen inches to my right to stay scrupulously in lane. Maybe there’s a driver one day who is particularly relaxed about things and not too worried about the risk of scraping against some tiny Mini Cooper; how bad could that be? this bus driver muses before returning to fantasies of his long overdue lunch.
Sometimes luck is the only way, the only hope: It’s now too late to email my massage therapist to postpone the session and historically texting her has been so iffy that we’d abandoned that method of communication as long ago as last year. And phone? Ha! So it’s text or nothing — that is, under the circumstances it made perfect sense to play an option that required luck.
Okay, not much at stake there… Let’s see how luck fits in when your chances are remote and the stakes are as high as it gets. Bet the farm on drawing a royal flush? As we all know, ordinarily you lose. But with a torrent of luck, sometimes it happens that lightning strikes, one beats the odds, you win the lottery! Yes, in some rare case, however far-fetched, it happens that the yokel — as in the Prologue to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — by the most bizarre chance imaginable lands a lucky punch and knocks out the professional boxer. Some base a life on this kind of semi-miracle. Many count on such a remote chance to redeem all.
But how many must be killed by lightning before, as if by some infernal logic, one person can win the lottery?
I knew a person who was killed when lightning struck for real. He was a particularly likable and tremendously funny individual and, I think, a happy one. He was indoors too. But that Saturday in Baltimore luck was on vacation. His protection was out to lunch and he paid the price. Three hundred came to his funeral.
I returned the other day from my college’s reunion in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We had a memorial service for members of the class who had died. Individuals were given the names of these classmates and read these names in alphabetical order, a bell being tolled after each name.
At the 35th reunion, the first I’d attended, it was the somber bell ritual that inspired my wife to do a self-exam, and so discovered the breast cancer that, 11 years later, spread to her brain and killed her in three months.
At the 50th reunion no one needed to point out — they probably did anyway — that the proportion of the dead to the living is, by some maddening inflexibility and with infuriating certitude, ineluctably and irreversibly growing. But could it ever get to infinity? Well, in fact an infinity outcome is inevitable. Check out the following “proof”:
Let’s say there were originally 1500 living members of the class. And let’s say 150 have now died. That makes the Current Dead Ratio (CDR) 150/1,350 = 0.11. Now let’s take this slow. Imagine a time when, say, 250 have died. That’s a CDR of 250/1,250 = 0.20. Still just a fraction, and will remain so as long as more or us live than do not live.
At 500 deaths the CDR is 500/1,000 or 0.50. Finally we get to equal numbers of living and dead at 750. The CDR is at last an integer: 750/750 = 1. A milestone.
Years later we find there are 1,000 dead; CDR is 1,000/500 = 2. Later still there are 1,250 dead: CDR 1,250/250 = 5. We see that the CDR value has begun to climb rapidly, soon precipitously. With 1,450 dead CDR is 1,450/50 = 29. With a single individual alive the CDR is 1499/1 = 1,499. Quite a development from where we are currently, at the fraction 0.11!
But this condition cannot last forever. At some point not a single member of the class will be alive, even if it is the one who is writing about the phenomenon now. At that point CDR is indeed infinite: 1,500/0 = ∞…
So, is it likely that luck will keep me alive forever, protect me from death and inhibit the CDR equation from blowing up like it has for every other college class, group of humans or other so-called living things? Not very. Some general antidote to death would have to be developed, or maybe a new understanding that perceives a dead person as essentially a living one. Already a dead person can have a Facebook page, for example, and in some counties they are expected to vote. And for many believing Christians, the Second Coming could arrive before Death has seized them so that they never taste it. But isn’t this something of a gamble? Infinity or no, I’d be inclined to go with the odds — i.e., in all cases we get to CDR = ∞… All aboard then, people, time to get back on the bus.
© Jerry Kurtz 2015