May 28, 2018

Rolling Ones (and Living With It)

Those of you who aren’t of the nerdly persuasion, the terms “rolling a one” and “rolling a twenty” colloquially refer to the usual effects that rolling a twenty-sided die in a tabletop role playing game has—a stroke of extremely bad or good luck or act of skill, respectively. While it’s becoming not only culturally acceptable to be a gaming nerd, but even respectable—thank you, the internet and Stranger Things—in the days when I was tossing around oddly shaped dice on a plank of plywood propped up on sawhorses in my friend’s backyard shed on Saturday nights, such a past time wasn’t considered dinner conversation, if you know what I mean. Nonetheless, there’s been all sorts of other phrases that we’ve used over time to represent inexplicable strokes of good or bad luck. If you’re having a great streak of luck, then everything is “coming up aces.” If things are going particularly crappy for you, then life is “giving you lemons.”

When life gives you lemons...
get a new life.

Along with all of the turns of phrases we have in the English language to describe luck and the superstitions we’ve contrived to explain its nature and origin, we’ve also come up with all sorts of personalized ways of dealing with it, some more or less comforting than others. There’s good luck charms, activities and habits that supposedly bring better luck or ward off bad luck, and even some folks who use asinine approximations of theology to explain why bad stuff happens to good people, saying totally and often callously uncomforting things like, “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” Regardless of how you look at luck and whether you see it totally random, something mystical, or something divinely providential, I think we can all admit that there are times when even the science of mathematics and statistics seems to be outright defied by how many times you can roll a one on any kind of die. That’s the point of this article. I’m not talking about figuring it all out, but rather how to cope with it. When life gives you lemons, get a new life.

Now, I think you can tell already that I don’t have all the answers to the problem of luck. If I did, you can bet your ass I wouldn’t be writing articles for my little blog website for free. But, as someone who’s rolled a number of ones in my short life, I am something of an authority at least with coping with them (albeit sometimes poorly). That’s what it’s all about really. I was teaching a theology class once and vainly attempting to discuss the exhaustive topic of providence (a topic you can read more about here), when an elderly woman spoke and said something that I, in my often cantankerous disposition, might often look down on, but that’s worth some fair and deeper consideration. She said, “once I realized that everything that happened in life was God’s will, my life got a lot better.”

Life often just sucks, but we still live in it and keep doing our best.

Again, while we all get our torches and pitchforks at the ready, this sounds dangerously similar to the good old “Lord works in mysterious ways” line of BS that we’re all tired of hearing when we get passed over for a job in favor of the hiring manager’s over-privileged cousin or when an innocent loved one is dying of cancer. But, whether you believe in a higher power or not, whether you even believe in luck itself or just think the cosmos is one long series of random events causally rolling from one act of chance to another, what the lady in question was really referring to was a matter of perspective. Notice I also made mention of the fact that she was elderly. This wasn’t to just paint a vivid picture of the social dynamic, but rather to say that someone who was over twice my age and has rolled at least twice as many undeserved ones as I have can still fully internalize a concept, any concept (in her case, the plan of a divine higher power), and find a way to come to terms with the fact that life often just sucks, but we still live in it and keep doing our best.

Water flows around the rock and eventually wears it down to a tiny pebble that tumbles away.

To clarify, this woman didn’t, on one random day of her life, just wake up and realize that God was at the wheel of her life and suddenly had nothing but good days (I asked, just to make sure, and she confirmed that she did, in fact, still have many crappy days after that). All that really happened is that she realized she wasn’t in complete control of everything in her life. To be realistic, again, regardless of your spiritual beliefs, she’s not in control of most of what happens to her. Once this realization sank in, which may have had to do with living enough years and experiencing enough gains and losses (both deserved and undeserved) to have run the full course of the life experiment, she was able to simply live with what happens and bend around it. Like the saying goes, be like the water, not the rock. Water flows around and over the impassable rock and, eventually and with much effort and tenacity, eventually wears the rock down to a tiny pebble that tumbles away in the water’s current.

This is easy stuff to hear, say, and repeat to others. But, it’s really hard to fully internalize. When you’ve worked painstakingly hard for something and just don’t get it, when you’ve “earned” something and it seems to slip away just as you can almost taste it, falling through your fingers like water and landing effortlessly into the lap of some undeserving turd who seems to get everything they want just as easy as breathing, then you realize that grief, anger, and despair tend to rule the day. I get it, really. The real challenge is the internalization of reality.

Anyone who thinks they’re in control or has everything locked down just the way they want it is always in for a surprise, sooner or later. The strongest house can be swept away by a hurricane, burned to ash by wildfire, buried in a mudslide, or swallowed in an earthquake. The healthiest person who exercises every day and takes all the vitamins can still fall victim to disease or infirmity without any warning. I still remember throwing out a large box of vitamins and all sorts of supplements that belonged to my mother shortly after she died in her forties of a totally random brain tumor. Again, whether you believe that a higher power has plans for you that you couldn’t possibly comprehend or manipulate, or if you materialistically observe that shit happens and sometimes you really can’t control it, you’ll all eventually realize that you have to go with the flow or continue to be defeated. Or, maybe not. The point is that you never know.

Does God have it out for us?
Is the Illuminati behind it all??

How many times have you played Monopoly, started out with everything in your favor, and rolled ones every time you toss the dice, ultimately landing you in jail with the smug jerk you didn’t even want to play with owning the Park Place stretch when all you could ever get your hungry hands on was brown town and one of those miserable railroads. It happens. Some of us are born with everything and just get more, some with nothing and somehow manage to keep losing, while others are born with a little more of this, less of that, or have to work twice as hard at one thing than another person, and so on, and so on. Does God have it out for us? Is the Illuminati behind it all? Does Mickey Mouse own our souls already, and we don’t even know it?! I’ve been wrong before, but I don’t think so.

Statistics and probably can be whatever it wants to be, but I can tell you that in practice, sometimes you roll a totally inexplicable one hundred twenty-three ones in a row. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not fair, and it’s not right. It simply is. If you couldn’t get your hands on Boardwalk no matter how hard you tried, then own the hell out of Baltic and Mediterranean. Fix the ghetto up with a bouncy house and a snowball stand. Take it where you can get it and wash over the rocks of life to get around them and/or wear them down until they tumble away under the force of your unbreakable will. It's not about accepting defeat and giving up the fight, though.

It's about enduring what you can't control to remember to fight another day.

Life is a battlefield (and so is love—thanks, Pat Benatar). Never forget that despite all the comforts of modern civilization, we still all have to fight, at least in some way, for what we want, and even for what we need. While we may not have to club other primates over the head for a bush full of berries in order to survive the harsh winter, we do compete for jobs to pay for our essential needs, for desirable living space, and for desirable mates. So, the insidious temptation of passive resignation and, well, just plain giving up isn't the way to go about it. But, the problem is that even the strongest and most resilient of us can get hopelessly beat down by rolling successive ones for a length of time. There's nothing like a mean and unforgiving streak of undeserved bad luck to suck the fight right out of you and make you just want to roll over and give up the ghost. It's about enduring what you can't control in order to make it through the day, to remember to fight another day and that you can still fight.

If you believe a higher power is driving the bus, then trust it and know that everything that's happening is supposed to happen, whether you understand it or not. If you believe things are totally random, then try to roll with the dice and adapt to the changing currents of causality. We're all losers from time to time (myself very much included). So, the trick is to own whatever you are in the moment—if you keep losing, then just live it up like a loser until things get better. Redefine your definition of what a good day is—if every day seems kind of bad, then "bad" days just become "normal" days by definition, and anything above that, anything at all, suddenly becomes a good day. If you can’t slay the dragon, then sneak out with some of its treasure and laugh all the way home. If life gives you lemons, get a new life. I’m still working at it myself. But hey, if you can’t do, then teach, and if you can’t teach, then teach gym.