‘Nobody deserves such bad luck as Boris’

Wheel of fortune: The goddess Fortuna spins it at random, sending some people up, some down.

Does luck really exist? Three months ago, Boris Johnson was riding high. Now, he is in intensive care and his government at bay, as Britain is battered by its worst crisis since World War Two.

For Boris Johnson, January was a brilliant start to the year. He had just realised his life’s ambition: being elected prime minister with an unassailable majority. He had overseen the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland after a three-year hiatus. And, though the world did not yet know it, he had become engaged to his girlfriend Carrie Symonds, who was expecting their first child.

“Everything is going Boris Johnson’s way”, ran a headline in the Daily Telegraph. “When will his luck run out?”

Though we did not know it at the time, the answer was: very soon.

First, there were the floods which submerged large areas of Britain and brought criticism of his handling of the crisis. Then there were the embarrassing resignations of his chancellor of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, and Sir Philip Rutnam, the senior civil servant who had clashed with Priti Patel.

And then the horrifying virus which, in 100 days, has threatened the jobs of a billion workers worldwide and left the UK facing the highest death toll in Europe. The virus which has thrown the irrepressible Johnson into intensive care and may keep him off work for a month – with some of today’s newspaper headlines calling for a caretaker prime minister to be named in his place.

As Michael Heseltine, one of Britain’s most flamboyant politicians, said yesterday: “Nobody deserves such bad luck.”

Heseltine summed up the way most people have thought for centuries. Luck, we imagine, is like the wheel of fortune. One minute it carries it up to dizzy heights. Then, with a random flick from the goddess Fortuna, we are down in the depths. Fickle, cruel, and outside our control – it just happens .

For the ancient Greeks, luck – both good and bad – came in the form of the Fates and the gods living on Mount Olympus. Later, Christian theology developed the powerful ideas of divine providence and predestination (in short, one’s “lot” in life) to help lighten the burden of free will. In the modern world, genetics has allowed us to blame our parents.

But some, such as the science writer Neil Levy, believe that luck is an empty idea and meaningless. When we talk about it, Levy argues, we are simply acknowledging that the same circumstances could easily have produced a different result.

A shot in football that goes in off the post might appear to be luck, but most of the time will have more to do with skill. And there is no such thing as a lucky or unlucky person: the fact that things have gone well or badly for them in the past does not mean that the same will happen in the future.

It is a fascinating question: does luck really exist?

Fateful?

Yes, of course, say some, such as Professor Richard Wiseman. It is a state of mind. “Lucky people are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities; make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition; create self-fulfilling prophecies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.”

No, say others. Luck is merely a psychological comfort blanket. We cannot bear the idea that failure or success might be either purely random or down to us alone. Today, we know that the principle of life is, in fact, purely random – the movement of atoms and molecules. In this chaos, we make decisions, often poor ones, which have results both good and bad.

You Decide

  1. Do you believe in luck? What is the luckiest thing that has ever happened to you?
  2. Would the world be a happier place if nobody believed in luck?

Activities

  1. Take a coin and ask a family member to choose heads or tails. Toss it 50 times, keeping count of the results to see how many times it lands on your side rather than theirs. Then get them to toss it 50 times and see who’s the lucky one today.
  2. In the most famous speech ever written, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Shakespeare refers to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Learn the speech by heart and then perform it for your household this weekend.

Some People Say...

“Don’t give me good generals. Give me lucky ones.”

Attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), French statesman and military leader

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Accidents are closely related to luck, but the two do not necessarily go together. An accident in which you are injured through no fault of your own may be considered bad luck. Winning the lottery counts as good luck, but it is not an accident if you paid for your own ticket and chose your own numbers because you did those things with the intention of becoming rich.
What do we not know?
Whether good luck and good fortune are the same thing. Some theorists argue that although both are outside our control, we see events such as winning the lottery as lucky because there is only a small probability that they will happen. Fortune can bring us good things, such as a happy marriage, but because that is something quite common – and something we contribute to through our own efforts – it cannot be put down to luck.

Word Watch

Unassailable
Too strong to attack successfully.
Power-sharing
Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is governed jointly by the largest unionist party, the DUP, and the largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin. The arrangement broke down in January 2017.
Hiatus
A break or interval in which nothing happens, from the Latin word for “gaping”.
Priti Patel
The home secretary, who has been accused of bullying those who work under her.
Caretaker
A caretaker leader is in charge temporarily.
Fates
In Greek mythology, the Fates were three women. Clotho spun the thread of life, Lachesis measured out the length of thread allotted to each person, and Atropos cut it with her scissors when the moment of death came.
Divine providence
The idea that God intervenes to guide events.

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