More on Luck (Or Moron Luck)

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about a catastrophe that almost happened, but didn’t.

Really?! I’m worrying about the past? Don’t I have enough things I could drive myself crazy with? But if I’m worrying about bad things that almost happened, it’s a sure bet I’m not the only one who does.

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Last weekend I met my friend Nina in the city (New York City. Is there any other city?) for a play, then dinner at an Asian Fusion Vegan restaurant. Neither of us are vegans, but she’s a vegetarian and I like to eat healthy new things.

It was a day filled with coincidence. First, Nina saw her cousin in the audience. She thought it was miraculous serendipity, but I thought it was just the law of averages. Nina often goes to plays and her cousin lives in that neighborhood of Manhattan where the theater was.

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Then Nina got a call from her dog walker who said they’d forgotten to leave one of the locks open and she couldn’t get in to walk their dog. Nina’s husband had to leave directly after the play and missed having dinner with us. Nina commented that this was becoming a fateful day. (Other things happened to her before we even met up that led her to that conclusion.)

As Nina and I walked to the restaurant, I was so busy talking that I didn’t notice the light had changed. I stepped right into the path of a car that was just about to move. I was almost hit. But I wasn’t.

It’s hard to talk and walk at the same time. I’m not the only one with this problem. Distracted pedestrians in the city get hit by cars sometimes. (I can hear my sons admonishing me to be more careful!)

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When we sat down to eat at this lovely restaurant in a multi-story old house on Park Avenue, the waitress asked if we’d like the oil lamp on our table to be lit. I hesitated. The table was postage stamp sized. In the past, I’d set fire to the occasional menu, but I was sure I’d be careful. We told her to light it.

We ate without mishap, the table was cleared, and while we looked at the bill, Nina’s large, soft, paper napkin burst into flames. Everyone turned to us but no one moved. I pulled the napkin off the flame, but it flared up. I threw it to the floor and stomped on it as the man at a nearby table said, “Don’t throw it on the floor!”

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I stomped out the flames and saved the day. Diners around us noticed our area was permeated with the smell of smoke, but no one said a thing. The waitress came by, sniffed the air, and casually picked up the remnant of the burnt napkin from the floor.

That night, I awoke from a deep sleep. I replayed the two times I almost died that evening – the car and the fire. Have you noticed that in the middle of the night, life can seem portentous and scary?

In the morning, when my rational mind returned, I began thinking about how often bad things almost happen but don’t. Statistically, these “almost” catastrophes must happen to everyone all the time, if you’re paying attention. People with chronic anxiety pay too much attention, but most of us shrug it off, unless we’re coming down with a cold or something else in our life is causing us angst.

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I like to think about statistical odds and how our brains are wired to misunderstand them. When I took Biology 101 in university, the professor listed all the things that could go wrong with genetics when a baby is born. At the end of his lecture, when all of us were convinced that the most foolhardy thing we could ever do in the future was to try and procreate, the professor said, “Although millions of things can go wrong, they usually don’t. That’s why we’re all here now enjoying an excellent life-expectancy.”

But in the middle the night, you may misread the statistics of luck and chance. Bad things almost happen all the time, but don’t. Until they do.

My conclusion? Worry is a waste of time. (Tell that to your irrational, error-prone, statistical dunce of a brain.)

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