Midway through high school, quite disenchanted with life, I decided that success was not acquired through hard work, education, popularity, or even money. Success in life, no matter how you measured it, was based on the simple principle of being at the right place, at the right time, and doing whatever it was that needed to be done. It seems that while most people I have met will affirm this basic notion in one breath, they are quick to point out that this is some kind of intangible, unreachable, hopeless ideal. Yet, on the other hand, we all fill our lives with attempts to direct and redirect our futures. We call it a variety of names: luck, fate, chance, fortune, providence, God’s plan, coincidence… words that all try to mean different things, but which are really pointing in the same direction: toward an acknowledgement that we are trapped in a prison without bars, walls, doors, or floors, bouncing from one place to the next in the dark and never entirely sure what comes next.
That might explain some of our fascination with statistics. In a world that is still hesitating on how much authority we want to ascribe to an external source (because it is offensive to our individualistic sensitivities) we usually compromise for a concept that provides some general laws by which the world turns, but allows for some flexibility – hence the somewhat facetious nature of statistics. They subtly promise more than they can deliver, and the higher the rate, the greater the tease. Yet it works, because something in us really wants to know, wants to prepare, wants a little light on tomorrow. We shell out money to whoever can give us the best sounding answers, to whoever gives us hope that this Limbo-like existence is flying and not falling regardless of what we feel. We live on this hope. This counsel, whether it be on stock market investments, romantic relationships, career choices, or what kind of cereal to buy, is ultimately a gamble because one of those boxes in front of us may very likely have a very unfortunate surprise, and there is really no way of knowing until we buy it, take it home, and begin to sift through it… until it’s too late to change our minds.
Surely we have some grounding in the past – for it never changes, right? Would we even know if it did? I can’t say. What I do realize is that our history is made up of billions of seconds that fall through the air like raindrops, each containing tiny choices, and most passing by without our attention. So most of the choices we have available to us, we make out of ignorance of their existence, or simply out of a default strategy while aiming for a “higher” goal. Those who chase such goals have typically looked back and been amazed at how much passed by them while they were otherwise preoccupied. That is the story of most of our lives. Historians, like the Statisticians promise hope for the future if we learn our past, but it sounds like another tease to me. Not that it’s not worth learning history… but if you expect to be able to see what is coming up the path with your eyes staring behind you, don’t be surprised if you run into something.