4 September 2016 2:52 AM (personal)
I usually consider myself a very fortunate person: naturally ‘lucky’ in a not entirely serious way. I have, quite honestly, said that it's difficult to explain my life without trying to invoke some notion of good luck.
Unusually good things happen to me fairly often, especially when it comes to work, and since work dominates a third of one's life, being able to honestly enjoy nearly every second of it is nothing to sneeze at. People tell me that intelligence, skill, curiosity, enthusiasm, and the like play a factor, but I didn't become intelligent or enthusiastic or skilled or any of the rest through any doing of mine, at least not entirely. Giving oneself credit for having had useful genetic and environmental factors is stupid. I know too many intelligent people who are more hard-working than I am to think that chance doesn't play a role even for those who are talented. This isn't an argument for superstition, think of it more as an extension of Warren Buffett's Ovarian Lottery.
Recently, I got news from a doctor that made me feel very unhappy— Don't worry, I'm not dying. I feel better today, though if I think about it too much I still want to curl up in a ball and feel sorry for myself. However, as I was going to sleep last night, I said to myself what I always say when something unpleasant happens. “If this is the worst thing that ever happens to you, you're still more fortunate than most people."
For the first time in a while, I had a doubt. Is that actually true? I had a quite painful infection that affects 24.6 per 100,000 people. Between a third and a half of those will the infection lead to long lasting structural defect. I am told that my chance of long-term problems was raised by improper treatment in the emergency room. For all those with the structural defect, there's a nine out of ten chance that a painful but simple operation will fix it completely. One out of ten people are not candidates for that operation because of how the defect is placed in other tissue. So, here I have an unpleasant, potentially life-long problem that only happens to a bit less than one in a hundred thousand people.
To top it off, the whole thing was very likely caused by a drug toxicity effect that was killing off my gut lining, causing vomiting and internal bleeding severe enough that they thought I might have Crohn's disease. Fortunately, I don't, and I was able to have my guts go back to normal, aside from this one problem.
About a year ago, my doctor operated on me. The goal was to examine the defect and, likely, treat it. It turned out to be in an unsuitable place so they just cut it a bit wider and tied something through it to keep it open. I had thought he and his assistant (and in the case of his assistant I'm pretty sure he was telling me this) had told me that the operation they'd done to me was to help the problem heal over time. The thought I had was that the residue of the infection would drain out and when it had all drained they would take the band out, things would close up, and I'd be good as new. Long and annoying, but ultimately not so bad.
It hadn't stopped draining, so I went to see the doctor yesterday to ask why. He answered that it wasn't supposed to. The procedure he'd done on me was meant to keep it open and draining and just leave it open and draining permanently. There were surgeries, much more involved, ones, to close it up, but that doctor only knew how to perform the oldest of them. He said it only worked half the time and he was sure it wasn't worth doing. I believed him, on that point, after all he'd done a bunch of them. I asked about all the other treatments for the same problem, and he said he didn't know how to do them, because they were too new to be worth investing time in and he didn't know whether they would be reliable.
As you can imagine, I was rather unhappy. (The doctor said that if it was any consolation, he was willing to do the surgery he didn't think was worth doing if I really wanted, but that he would want me to seriously consider his recommendation that I not have it first. It was about then I began to suspect he didn't know what ‘consolation’ meant.)
I was rather angry, too. I did what any unhappy, angry person would do: I went to work. While at work, I did some research. I wrote a couple people who'd published research on the newer treatments and companies that manufactured the equipment for them to ask if they could point me to clinics in the United States that performed the newer procedures.
It's certainly possible that no treatment currently exists where the risks of surgery don't outweigh the likelihood of a cure, which I've considered. In my experience, things become a lot easier to bear when you have to live with them than when you imagine them because when you're living with them you don't really have much choice. What am I going to do, spend all my time being miserable? I'm not stupid. Getting accustomed to misfortune and living on cheerfully is the shiny side of the supposed hedonic treadmill. (I don't quite believe in the hedonic treadmill, though. Some things like music and intellectual pursuits seem to not be bound by it.)
If it is true that none of the newer procedures are worth doing, I would rather be told so by someone who has bothered to learn about them. My doctor gave the impression of someone who stuck looking into them on his to-do list rather than someone who has a serious medical opinion. So, I'm setting up an examination for a second opinion in Minnesota. I'm kind of excited about the prospect of taking a train ride there.
So I ask myself: Do I feel lucky, punk? One in a hundred thousand misfortune on top of every other problem I have? Yes, I do. I'm unhappy about it, but still fortunate overall. All the parts of life I enjoy immensely haven't suddenly ceased to exist. Also, while this one in one-hundred thousand mischance befell me, there are a lot of one in one-hundred thousand mischances to go around and a lot of people have been struck by one or more, so it would be foolish to act as if I'm particularly poorly off.
There's also my mental apparatus, which I count as ‘luck’ in two senses. Many people spend excessive amounts of time being very unhappy and upset and fearful over problems that when they happen to me, I brush off easily, or even matters that seem even much less severe than what I brush off easily. It often gets to the point where they seem to create more trouble for themselves with their reaction than was caused by their misfortunes. No, this is not a ‘those wussy people should shut up’ complaint. Nobody chooses their mental disposition, and while there are some habits of thought that they could probably learn and be better off for it, changing ones mind in even trivial ways is notoriously hard and gaining the wherewithal to do so in the middle of a crisis is a tall order.
Part of it is that I privilege happiness over unhappiness. I'm the opposite of the antinatalists who argue that the certainty of even a tiny bit of unhappiness outweighs the entire potential for happiness. (I despise those sorts of antinatalists, by the way.) This is also why I'll never be a Buddhist; the problem of discontentment seems such a trifling and stupid matter that Buddhism strikes me as the equivalent of cutting your legs off to avoid stubbing your toe.
Another part is that when I think of all the things that seem worthwhile and good to me, they all come in a bundle, but when I think of my misfortunes they come one at a time, so of course they'll get beaten into the ground. Other people tell me that for them it's the reverse, that when they think of something unhappy it winds itself together with everything else that's ever made them unhappy and brings them along for company.
This leads to one of the larger factors: I have won the affective lottery. Those with manic depressive disorder, when treated, end up settling down at some middle ground. For most, it's euthymia, a normal, every day emotional state. Some unfortunates, are pinned on border of depressive. They're not miserable all the time, but their world is desaturated, a little dimmer, a little more tired, a little lacking… My treatment pinned me on the edge of mania with the opposite effect. This means that, all other things being equal, if I'm disappointed or hurt, my sadness is sharper and brighter and more fiery and active. My innate disposition is to fight or move forward, or do something. It's also naturally easier to stay hopeful and to believe that come what may I'll be pretty good overall. I also just find it easier to get distracted from whatever's upsetting me by something interesting. This doesn't work all the time, but seems to be helpful in bouncing back and not wallowing in it.
I'm not ‘psychopathologizing everything’, not really. I do have a psychopathology, and it shapes my personality. To act like the two are completely separate and that I have ‘real emotions’ and a ‘real personality’ that are somehow separate from and hidden by the ‘disease’ is the kind of essentialist crap that no good, reductionist, cold-hearted hunter of truth would go for.
Thus why I count it two-fold. This mental irregularity predisposes me to count myself fortunate in dire circumstances, but being affected by it is a legitimate piece of good fortune that befell me through no action or merit of my own. Yes, I'm counting a major mental illness as good fortune. It has it's downsides as well as its upsides (ha ha ha) and I take medicine to ameliorate the downsides. However, when something has shaped my emotions and way of thinking and feeling to such a degree, I don't think I would be the person I think of as myself without it, and I like being myself. Even though, my mental irregularity might have caused me a lot more abject misery than I would have had otherwise, it also gave me much more sheer delight, and I've just said what I think about that trade-off. I know that for other people it's an unalloyed misfortune and they'd be rid of it in a second, so I don't claim it's good for anyone else.
I do my best to make, find, or invent a purpose for my misfortunes. Oddly, this is easier for those that are more conventionally life shattering. It's easier to imagine yourself helping other people with major, but relatively common problems. Incredibly unpleasant but ultimately bearable medical problems are more difficult to think of as inspirational. I'm not giving up, I'll just have to think about some way to turn this happening to me into a way to help someone else at some point. Then I'll be able to whirl around and poke it and say “There, you see? You tried to make me miserable, but I'm not miserable at all and you've made someone else happier!” (I have a bit of a personal grudge against unhappiness in general and feel entitled to taunt it and drive it out of the world where I can.)
So perhaps it's inaccurate to say my luck is entirely natural. We'll say instead that a good portion of my luck was inborn, much was fostered through a fortunate environment, and a few pieces were developed over time through learning and practice. Some of it is even planned in advance, though planning to be lucky sounds like cheating.
It might be worth nothing at this point that my use of the term ‘lucky’ is probably closer to the Latin ‘felix’ than to the common English meaning. There's something amusing about realizing after the fact that I've been writing a tract of felicity.