Today, I nearly walked into the path of a car that was entering traffic from a parking lot. The driver was edging into the road and had carefully scoped out his exit. I am certain that he had looked up the street and down. I was the surprise—a blind spot—in his field of vision. He was moving south; I was headed east. One half-second earlier and I would have gone sailing over the hood. I am a small woman, somewhat fit and maybe athletic. I saw myself arcing in a gymnastic tumble, except, unlike those tiny bouncy teenagers who would land on their tiptoes, I imagine that my head would have hit the pavement first, a non-sanctioned Olympic move called The Double Concussion Flip and Fall. Moby’s Wait for Me was playing in my earphones and I was over-dressed on this sixty degree spring day.
To break my fall, I stretched out my hands. This failed and my chest hit the hood of the car; my head whiplashed back. I tried to resettle myself: What was I doing before I slammed onto the hood of this car? Where were my thoughts?
The driver waved his hands in apology; I waved back. It was like a silent movie. All gestures, no talk. I wanted to dance a bit, maybe skip in front of the car as I left the scene, just like Charlie Champlin would have. It was a magic moment. A minute before we had been invisible to each other; now we separate with a little memory, a shared story, and maybe a wee lesson, depending on our temperaments.
This encounter put my mind on the path of other near misses—a series of events that could have led to some serious trouble. I have sped through a stop sign late at night, distracted and tired. I have twice driven the wrong way down a busy street at twilight.. Earlier in that day, I would have without doubt faced a series of quickly moving cars, zooming up the hill. I would have been like a little cat facing the running of the bulls. We could all have been seriously hurt.
I have been in cars that have spun out, flipping on their heads in slick Alabama clay. I have been held up in Texas on a little walk in the good part of town. The man who did this looked upset enough to hurt me. I have dodged so many medical scares, that I am pretty certain that my health insurance company thinks that I messing with their premium calculation algorithm. I have had so many tests and been diagnosed with so many wrongly accused major illnesses,there must be a office pool somewhere betting on my demise. I could go on and on here but it seems with every incident I recount here, I am feeling both dizzier and bolder. With so much good fortune, a karmic calculation would have me dead pretty soon. As they say, I may be running out of good luck. Or maybe in that cosmic computation, or my good fortune comes at the costs of another’s unearned bad turn of chance.
Which gets me into the meat of what is really on my mind. Earned and unearned good fortune. the movie Funny Girl when Fanny Brice finds early renown, she says to her lover and supporter that she can’t be famous yet because she hasn’t suffered enough. I understand this feeling. It is that sentiment that much of what we have is unearned. I have unearned good health, undeserved energy, unnatural optimism. I don’t know if others feel this way about the gifts they have. I think we mainly focus on what’s missing.
It seems to me that most of us have experienced good fortune we have neither earned nor merited and of course, the reverse is true. The Just World hypothesis suggests just the opposite, that what we get is what we have earned. People are rich for good reasons, not trumped up excuses. People suffer in poverty because of bad choices. When we think about who is rich and who is poor, who enjoys good health and who falls to early disease, we frequently resort to this idea. We typically see great justice in the way of the world. It is comforting and somewhat cruel to believe that we get what we deserve. This is especially true if we believe in the power of individuals more than we do that of systems and structures. If we believe that through individual pluck and drive that the poorest child who has gone through worst schools can make it to Harvard and lead the world, we tend to be judgmental when they don’t. If we cannot see the advantage that birth and family and neighborhood bring to us, we probably believe that we are playing on a level playing field.
Twentieth century philosopher, John Rawls, suggested that in considering systems of justice, we imagine that we don’t know where in a social system we may stand. When we are making rules for running the world, we should evaluate them outside of our own interests. We should create systems that don’t favor or disfavor individuals because of race, gender, social class, national origin, cultural differences and so so. If a thought experiment like this were possible and if it could influence social policy, we would have be to convinced that we actually could stand in someone else’s shoes and represent their position fairly and respectfully. Hale doubts this can be done because of what he calls the veil of opulence—the blindness that we all have to the privileges of birth and position. We fall victim to the comfort of believing that if we fell on hard times, we would work our way out of it. The veil of opulence works like the Just World Hypothesis. It creates that delusional narrative that we are self-made, deserving human beings whose unearned good fortune insulates from caring more deeply from others who we see as not as worthy or deserving of what we have. Lots of us dodge bullets thinking we are lucky and blessed; not imaging that the cards are stacked in our favor.