These days, I find it hard not to think about concepts such as chance and luck. About all the good things in life we take for granted. About how we often act on the assumption that we rightfully deserve our privilege, even though most of it came to us out of sheer serendipitous coincidence. But also about the other side of that coin, namely the haunting feelings of guilt and remorse evoked by a sudden exposure to others’ suffering vis-a-vis our own happy, content existence.
Let me give you an example: I’m one of about 380.000 human beings born on November 15, 1987. But of all those births, only approximately 240 took place here, in Austria. In Russia on the other hand, about 6.900 people were born that day. In Ukraine, about 2.000. In Afghanistan 1.600. In Yemen 1.500. In Syria 1.200. In Somalia 900. And in Burundi 700.
Had I happened to spring into existence in any of those places instead, chances are that today, 35 years later, I would either be a fighting in a horrific war, suffering from severe poverty, being malnourished, or tormented by malaria, tuberculosis or HIV. Or, of course, that I’d be dead already, killed by any of the aforementioned reasons or one of a thousand others.
The “birthplace lottery” is of course only one dimension on which to assess how lucky we as individuals have been. You could also ask how unlikely it was to be born during a phase of unprecedented human prosperity at the end of the 20th century, rather than, say into the bleakness of the middle ages. Or to a middleclass family and not to a couple of negligent substance addicts. Or with a neurological wiring that suits itself well to higher education, and thus providing the foundation for success in socioeconomic terms.
This type of achievement in particular is often viewed through a narrow lens of individual actions and their causal relations. We attribute success to the hard labor that finally paid off. To the sacrifices that had to be made. To the courageous decisions at the right time. But what we rarely do, is acknowledge the unfathomable number of lucky coincidences which preceded and accompanied any of those events, so that they could eventually bear fruit.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that success is always and only the product of pure chance. Of course, individual efforts, passion, perseverance, and decisiveness are important. But had I happened to have appeared on the cosmic scene as the seventh child of a struggling family of goat-herders in Burundi? Well, then even a life’s worth of hard work combined with the most sage-like, virtuous character wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere close to the affluent standard of living which I otherwise was endowed with just by the merit of my birthplace– and time.
And if herding goat in Burundi sounds too abstract, or maybe even evokes romantic thoughts of a simpler, happier, more grounded life, then consider the fact that right now, there’s a brutal war going on just a couple hundred kilometers to my east. One in which tens of thousands just like me will fight and die without having had any choice in the matter. Or the fact that millions around the world are currently suffering from disease for which treatments or vaccines are available to me essentially for free, if and when ever I should need them.
This line of thinking however can easily be misunderstood as a device for eliminating joy from the good things we have in our lives. But that’s not the point either: Me despairing about the fact that I have had three Covid-19 shots already won’t help those in the global south who are still waiting for their first. The starving family in Burundi won’t be an iota better off just because I’m struck with guilt while munching on my Sunday lunch. Quite the contrary, by loading my joyful experiences with negative emotions, all of us end up suffering and no one flourishes.
Of course, this problem is by far not new. Both the ancient Buddhists and the Stoics have thought hard about it and arrived at surprisingly similar conclusions: Enjoy what you’ve been given while it lasts. Savor each and every positive experience to the fullest extent possible. Feel the warmth of the sun on your skin. Relish every moment you get to spend with those you love. But, and here’s the caveat, don’t take any of that for granted. Everything, say the Buddhists, is impermanent. Pretending otherwise will only lead to suffering. Your health will diminish, your body will grow old and frail, you and everyone you hold dear will die eventually. Therefore, say the Stoics, take the time to consciously prepare. Think it through: What will it feel like if and when catastrophe strikes? How will you react to sickness, accidents, or the death of friends and family? Epictetus put it most bluntly when he wrote that “as you kiss your son good night, whisper to yourself, ‘He may be dead in the morning’". But assembling mental contingency plans will not only help you be better prepared for when the inevitable happens. It also increases appreciation for every moment in which those bad things have not yet came to be. It can act as a powerful reminder of what you have, and therefore load these positive experiences with a deeper sense of meaning.
But secondly, and arguably even more important, is not to rest in our privileged positions, but to use our leverage to help eliminate at least some of the inequality created by these cosmic coincidences. The fact that I’m among the lucky 240 people born on that particular date in Austria, and not one of those 9.000 poor devils who saw the light of that day in Russia or Ukraine, most of whom presumably are currently staring into the barrels of each other’s guns, is not just a curious happenstance. It’s a call to action. It’s a moral obligation.
Frankly, I’m not quite ready to do something as radical as taking the Giving What We Can pledge, which would commit at least 10% of my net income to effective charities. But I’m taking baby steps. I’m donating time to one NGO, and money to a handful of trusted others. Of course, I’m also supporting the local initiative that sprang up to help those seeking shelter here from Putin’s bombs. That’s the least I can do to share a tiny bit of all the privilege that I get to enjoy as a consequence of—mostly—cosmic serendipity.