Thursday, February 25, 2016

Good Luck/Bad Luck

Luck has a bad rep these days and has for a while. Indeed, when Emerson wrote more than a century and a half ago in his essay called “Worship” (published in 1860 in his still-remarkable collection, The Conduct of Life) that only “shallow men believe in luck,” but that “strong men believe in cause and effect,” he was merely expressing a thought that most of us have regularly: that we are the masters of our own destinies far more meaningfully than we are fate’s victims, that the occasional serendipity or untoward happenstance do not come frequently or meaningfully enough to obscure the fact that Fortuna—for all she was beloved by the Romans—was, at the end of the day, a false god, a pagan bit of nonsense. And that Romeo is really just whining when he describes himself as fortune’s fool because, in the end, no one suffers merely solely because they are condemned to misery by the stars or the gods. We wish each other good luck all the time. But we don’t really mean it. Or do we?

I’ve just recently read two books, one about the world’s luckiest person and the other about the world’s least lucky…and the accidental juxtaposition of these reading experiences has made me wonder again about the whole concept.

The luckiest boy, now a man in his mid-eighties, is still working as a Professor of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence at the George Washington University Law School. But once Thomas Buergenthal was a Jewish child in a small town, Lubochna, in what was then Czechoslovakia and today is part of Slovakia. He didn’t really grow up there, however, because his family was deported when he was just four to the ghetto in Kielce, Poland. Four years later, after the ghetto was liquidated and almost all its residents murdered, he was sent along with his father to a labor camp. (He was still only eight years old at the time. About his mother’s fate, see below.) In a short passage that it is almost unbearable to read, he writes clearly and soberly about the murder of the ghetto’s children. But what is remarkable is that he somehow manages to write about such unimaginable horror specifically from a child’s perspective: the greatness of his book is that he does not attempt to contextualize what befell him in light of what he now knows or learned later on, but tries always to describe what he saw and experienced from the vantage point of the child he then was. In the summer of 1944, when little Tommy was ten, he and his father were sent to Auschwitz. Most in the transport were murdered upon arrival, but he was somehow sent along with his father to the work barracks. Why that happened, he does not pretend to understand, preferring instead to say that he was merely lucky, that his survival was not a function of his virtue or his worthiness merely of his good fortune. You read this book, and you can believe it easily.

The book, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, was published by Little, Brown in 2009, after having first appeared in German and has subsequently been translated into more than a dozen languages. I have read countless books in this genre, each one moving in its own personal way…but I can’t recall reading one that was as remarkable as this one and which made such a deep impression on me. And Tommy’s story remained unusual after the war as well. He was “adopted” by a unit of the Polish Army and stayed with them until they finally realized that their company was not really suitable for a child then still only twelve years old and deposited him in the Jewish orphanage that had been set up in Otwock, Poland.  And there he waited until, amazingly, he learned that his mother was not only alive but that she had returned to her own hometown in Germany and was conducting her search for him and his father from there. The story of their reunion is beyond touching, as is the story of the way they learned definitively that Tommy’s father had been killed. But it is the chapters set at Auschwitz and on the Death March to Sachsenhausen, the camp within Germany at which he was finally liberated, that are the most compelling.

Tommy himself cannot explain his survival. He returns to this theme again and again, not attempting more than to marvel at the arbitrariness of it all, at the way life and death appeared to decreed based on nothing at all…and certainly not on merit. He tells the story of his mother’s visit to a fortune teller before their deportation to Poland and of her mother’s unshakable certainty that the fortune teller was right when she said that Tommy would always be a lucky boy. And he leaves it at that…allowing us, the readers, either to buy into the notion that luck is real and that it visits whom it will without reference to rank or worth. But, of course, he also belies his own argument by becoming not just a lawyer after leaving Germany for the United States in 1951 and eventually earning his J.D. degree from New York University and advanced degrees in legal scholarship from Harvard, but by becoming one devoted to human rights law in particular. He writes about his work passionately and movingly, and although he would not dare say (nor would any sane person) that he was somehow spared from death because of the work he would one day do, he does suggest subtly that he somehow earned his right to have survived ex post facto by becoming a force for justice and good in the world, and by working tireless to prevent others from facing the fate that met his family and more or less the entire world of his youth.

And then, on the heels of A Lucky Child, I read Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air.  To say that the author was unlucky is to say nothing at all. Here was a man on the threshold of a great career as a neurosurgeon, a happy married man just wrapping up his residency and about to embark on a lifetime of healing and helping others. He was an educated man too, and not just in the way all doctors are: this was a man with an M.A. in literature from Stanford and a Master of Philosophy degree from Cambridge…and who only then went on to the Yale University Medical School, from which he graduated cum laude. And he, to read his own words, was someone who chose medicine for all the right reasons too—because he was truly drawn to the idea of spending his life restoring the sick to health in a way that many dream of doing but few have the emotional stamina, the intellectual ability, or the physical skill actually to accomplish.

And then, in a heartbeat, the world changed. He didn’t feel well and, in the manner of busy people (and, I think, particularly busy men), he ignored it. But then his discomfort became ominous-feeling, and he finally sought medical counsel. One test led to another, and then to a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. In the end, he had twenty-two months left before he finally died at age thirty-seven. And in that time he wrote this book, published by Random House earlier this year with a preface by Dr. Abraham Verghese, whose book Cutting for Stone remains one of my all-time favorite novels, and an afterword by the author’s wife Lucy in which she describes his death and its aftermath.

In medieval times, there was a whole genre of books devoted to confronting mortality by suggesting how to face death. The most famous, the Latin-language Ars Morendi, which title literally means “the art of dying,” dates back to the fifteenth century. English-language words followed, notably The Waye of Dying Well, The Sick Mannes Salve, and, in a more overtly Christian vein, Holy Living and Holy Dying. All have in common the assumption that the way to deal with our human mortality is to dare stare death in the face without flinching, to refuse to cower in the face of our mortality, to use the brevity of life as a platform to stand on rather than a wall to hide behind, to revel in our fragile humanity rather than to despise it.

I’ve read an English translation of the Ars Morendi years ago, but never quite seized the concept fully…until I read Dr. Kalanithi’s book. It is beautifully and movingly written, but even more impressive is its wisdom, its almost lyrical sang-froid in the face of impending doom, and its deep, abiding humanity.  It is a wonderful book, one I could not recommend more highly. But reading his words induces a series of extremely disquieting questions. Why did the author become sick? Surely he didn’t deserve his fate, but is that all there is to say, that he was unlucky in the extreme and that this, among other horrible things, is what happens to people when their luck runs out? Does any of us believe that? We pretend not to, certainly. When we say l’shanah tovah tikateivu to our friends at Rosh Hashanah time, we mean what we say (or we sort of do): that we hope that our friends merit being written up in the Great Book of Life for good, that they be granted another year of life. But does that thought not imply that those stricken with illness somehow deserve their ill fortune, that God has apparently chosen not to forgive them their trespasses? None of us believes that for a moment, and myself least of all. But to chalk it all up to luck, to kismet, to fate, and to leave it at that sounds equally ridiculous.

St. Augustine dismissed Fortuna, goddess of good luck, as “that supposed deity.” I know how he felt. Like every rabbi, I spend much of my professional life encouraging people one way or the other to believe that life has meaning, that God is just, that the way people live their lives matters profoundly and meaningfully. Believing in luck, on the other hand, seems to fly in the face of all of the above. And yet, to read these books, to contemplate the indescribable good luck of Thomas Buergenthal (who survived against all odds when so many died) and to juxtapose his fate against the inexplicable bad luck of Dr. Paul Kalanithi (who had so much to offer the world and who instead succumbed to his horrific illness before his daughter reached her first birthday)—it makes you wonder how the world really does work. I used to think that believing in luck was wholly antithetical to faith in God, and particularly to faith in the just and loving God of Israel. But now—and particularly after reading these two books back-to-back—I find myself wondering if I myself am not proof positive that just the opposite is true, that both concepts can apparently co-exist within the same human breast and flourish, each bearing its own baggage, within the chambers of the same beating heart.

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