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The International Writers Magazine:

A Rational  Perspective  on Life’s Journey
• Barry Mayhew
 Some time ago, a friend who was experiencing a particularly perplexing period in his life due to financial and marital misfortunes, offered the comment that “life is really a crap shoot.” I sensed he was in no mood to be challenged so I somewhat reluctantly decided to  remain silent and allow him to continue describing his current difficulties.

Over the next several days, however, I kept reflecting on his analogy and questioning whether or not it had any validity. As games of chance kept popping up in my mind I was reminded of a hit song from some years ago that contained the following lyrics. “You’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Probably good advice to a serious poker player I mused, but is this advice applicable to the “game of life?” The more I thought about it the more I intrigued I became with the analogy and ultimately concluded that in many ways the game of poker did indeed mirror the game of life. 

For centuries scholars, theologians and just plain common folk have pondered such inscrutable questions as: what is the meaning of life?, why are we here? Who or what, if anything, controls or affects our individual destiny? To me the most intriguing question involves the degree to which we have control over the events that impact our lives as we pass through the various stages of the human life cycle. To this end I have attempted to construct a model that might make some sense of what for me has been a challenging conundrum. Clearly, there are certain aspects of our lives over which we have no control, others over which we have some degree of control and still others wherein control is largely in our own hands. Like a game of poker, we have no control over the cards we are dealt but do have control over the way we choose to play each hand. If one accepts this concept as being rational, the next logical question might be; in the course of a lifetime, how many hands are we dealt? There is really no definitive number but if we associate each hand dealt with a particular aspect of our lives we could probably agree on a number of specific categories. To develop the model further we might consider events as they occur in sequence as we pass through the our life cycle. 

The first hand we are dealt is the genetic structure we inherit at birth. This factor, of course, has a profound impact on both our physical and mental capabilities and is something over which we have no control. It is not uncommon for someone to be born with a serious physical or mental impediment but to possess superior talents in one or the other category. One could site the example of Stephen Hawking, who despite a serious physical disability, was blessed with a superior intellect and is recognized as one of the world’s foremost physicists. An example in the reverse might be Mike Tyson whose intellectual capabilities are certainly open to question but who nevertheless, for a limited time, became a very wealthy man and gained fame as a heavyweight boxing champion because of his physical prowess. The point, however, is that these individuals are exceptions who in some ways defy the laws of probability. In any event I think there is no disputing the argument that we have no control over the genetic structure we inherit at birth.

The next hand we are dealt in the game of life is the socio-economic environment into which we are born. Here again we are not given the benefit of choice. An individual might be dealt an excellent, fair or very poor hand. A child born into an upper middle class family in which both parents are college graduates and professionally employed has certainly been dealt a better hand than someone born into an ethnic minority family consisting of a single mother on welfare. As is the case with genetic structure, one’s socio-economic environment dictates neither success nor failure but again we are talking about probabilities.

As we move into the early teen years we begin to gain more control over our own destiny. While genetic structure is unalterable throughout our lives and our socio-economic environment will likely continue to have a significant impact, our teen years provide the first opportunity to begin making conscious choices. This despite continuing influence and some control by our parents, teachers, relatives, role models and other adults. We now begin to have such choices as how diligently we pursue educational opportunities, participate in sports and artistic activities, whom we choose as friends and how well we develop relationships with others. For most of us the period between our late teens to early 20’s is a critical one in terms of the degree of success and happiness we are likely to experience throughout the remainder of our lives. This is also the period during which most of us have the greatest amount of control over our own destiny. Decisions made during this period usually include how we will earn our livelihood, who we will choose as a spouse or long term partner, whether or not to have children and other longer term decisions.

If one accepts the proposition that there are many events over which we have little or no control, then another rather thorny question arises. If we have no control over certain aspects of our lives, is there some other power that does? Is there a supreme power,  God or Allah who is pulling the strings like a clever puppeteer or are there a number of gods like those revered by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks or Romans, each having influence over specific aspects of the human condition? Or as some have suggested, do we all have a guardian angel looking out for our welfare or are only some of us blessed with this advantage? If such spiritual entities do exist, one would have to conclude that only a small proportion of us have had the good fortune to have one assigned to look after our personal well-being. If indeed there is some supreme power dealing the hands, then we might ask the following questions. Is the deck always fairly shuffled before each hand is dealt? Can we trust the dealer’s integrity or is the deck sometimes “stacked?”

Over the past several months I have compiled a file of ideas and thoughts that came into my mind concerning issues associated with the destiny of individuals. At times I have wondered if my efforts were an exercise in futility. Does anyone really care about why certain life altering events occur during our lives? Do people really feel a need for a model that provides a rationale for events that impact on their lives? While some, like myself, do feel the need, others may simply accept what happens and never ask why. Still others believe they are in complete control of their own destiny. Some of us, unable or unwilling, to accept existing models, have the option of constructing our own “customized” model. There is certainly no shortage of existing models from which to choose when one considers, for example, the myriad religions that exist throughout the world. One can choose from such diverse models as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism or Christianity to name just a few options. There is even a certain amount of “customizing” available to those who do not precisely fit the mold. For Protestant Christians more specific models are offered by the Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists and others. By contrast, Catholicism allows very little flexibility to accommodate freer thinkers.

There is also the question of “opportunity.” Are some people exposed to more opportunities than others? Or are some more astute at recognizing opportunities when they present themselves? It seems reasonable that an introvert would be less likely to be able to identify opportunities than someone who is an extrovert. Clearly, some individuals have a propensity for being risk takers and this may result in more potential opportunities coming their way. There is, however, a downside for these types. Most risk takers I have known have experienced a number of disasters as they pursued their dreams of fame and fortune.

There are, no doubt, other possible explanations for why some human beings go through the life cycle with one positive event following another while others seem to be the victim of a seemingly endless series of misfortunes. 

We often hear people saying that someone has God-given talents. Atheists may find this expression offensive and may feel more comfortable substituting genetically-given talents. Either way, there are clearly those among us who have been blessed with special talents and skills that enable them to excel at certain activities. I believe, however, that achieving world class status in any activity also requires total dedication and constant practice. But no amount of dedication and practice is a guarantee that a competent pianist will be able to perform at the level of Horowitz, a baseball player to hit home runs like Hank Aaron or a physicist to develop theories comparable to Einstein’s. These individuals have something more, something innate, some special talent that was bestowed upon them at birth. It may be physical or mental in nature but it is rarely both. 

Many card games give players the option of throwing in their cards and being dealt a new hand if they are holding what they consider a poor hand. Is this option available in the game of life? Clearly, it is not available if one is unhappy with one’s genetic structure or the socio-economic environment into which one is born. Later in life, however, unhappy or disgruntled players may elect to throw their hand in and hope for a better one. Someone in an unhappy marriage, for example, can divorce his/her spouse and try their luck with a new partner. An unhappy employee has the option of changing employers. If you are unhappy in the place you are living, then you can move to a new location.

I have personally reached the conclusion that the answer may be no more complex than what statisticians refer to as the normal distribution and common folk call the bell curve. Just as there are a miniscule number of adults who grow to over seven feet in height, there is probably a similar proportion who go through life experiencing positive events with each hand that is dealt. The other extreme is those who never achieve a height of five feet, or to complete the analogy, experience one misfortune followed by another. The majority of us, however, fall within the middle range of the curve. We can identify about an equal number of positive and negative events throughout our lives. 

In effect, the events over which we have no control are distributed randomly. There may be one person in 500 who contracts multiple sclerosis, perhaps one in a million who is a passenger on a commercial airliner that plunges into the sea or one in several thousand who has a Down Syndrome child. Conversely, there is an equal degree of randomness associated with the proportion of the population blessed with an I.Q. over 150 or those who win a multi-million dollar lottery. You may agree or disagree with this conclusion or you may not care, one way or the other. If you do care and find existing models unsatisfactory, then you have two options: adopt my model within your intellectual framework, or accept the challenge and develop a new model. 

Just for fun, why not assess your own life in terms of the hands you think you have been dealt and the skill with which you have played those hands over which you have had some or a significant degree of control. Include as many categories  (hands) as you think have been important in determining your destiny to date. You could even show the results of your self analysis graphically. 

There is one final analogy I feel compelled to mention. As every poker player knows, “bluffing” is an integral part of the game. We all know people who have successfully bluffed their way into highly desirable situations. Rather than referring to these people as good bluffers, we usually describe them in less flattering terms.
© Barry Mayhew   April 2012

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