Sunday Night Journal — December 19, 2004
Sunday Night Journal — January 2, 2005

Sunday Night Journal — December 26, 2004

Just Your Luck

My job as director of administrative systems at a small college is very much a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none affair that involves a lot of direct support of the people who use the administrative information system. Over the years I think almost every one of them has asserted confidently that he or she has been unfairly singled out by fate to experience an inordinate number of computer-related problems. I often hear personalized versions of Murphy’s Law such as “If it can happen, it will happen to me.” Phone calls frequently begin with remarks that may be apologetic (“I’m sorry I’m always bringing you a problem”), irritated (“I just did this yesterday and now today it doesn’t work”), self-deprecating (“I broke it again”), or anthropomorphically paranoid (“My computer hates me”).

I never know whether it’s a comfort or otherwise when I feel obliged to tell them the truth, which is that their problems are nothing special, and that every single one of their co-workers feels equally put-upon. Today’s computer systems don’t really work that well, all in all (compared, say, to your car) in spite of the fact that they have a quantity of memory and horsepower that the artificial intelligence researchers of thirty or forty years ago would have deemed sufficient to support reasoning on the level of HAL, the conscientiously homicidal computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Systems do far, far more than they did when I first got into the business in the late 1970s, but I don’t know that they do it any more reliably.

I think we all suffer from this impulse to believe that we are specially chosen for bad luck, but obviously it can’t be true that everyone has more bad luck than everyone else. Twice in the past few weeks or so I’ve heard my wife use the phrase “with my luck” or “just my luck” in expectation of some inconvenience, and I daresay most of us use it from time to time. Most often we say these things half-humorously, because most of the things we complain about most of the time—those of us in affluent societies, at any rate—are fairly minor. We don’t generally speak this way when something truly terrible happens, such as the sudden death which overtook a friend of mine two days before Christmas; the idea that such a blow was delivered with conscious malevolence is too dreadful to be trifled with.

So either we all suffer from the same persecution complex or we are all being persecuted, and as I have no doubt at all that a statistical analysis of problems encountered on any given day ranging from minor annoyance to death would show a pretty even distribution, it must be the latter. “Persecuted” may not be the right word; there may be no intention behind the general tendency of things to go wrong. But our impulse to feel persecuted is evidence of something—of two things, actually. In the first place, we feel that we have some right to expect that things go well rather than badly, and in the second place, we feel that there is something personal in the way we are treated by the universe.

If the Christian faith is true, then both these impulses—these emotional beliefs—are in fact correct. The world was meant to be a better place, and each of us is the object of particular consideration on the part of the ruler of the universe. In a way that is not mere illusion, that is accurate at least in relation to perspective, each of us is the center of a universe, the pole around which all else revolves. The fact that the earth is in motion relative to the sun and to the other planets, and all of these in motion relative to the rest of the galaxy, does not alter the functional relationship of the sun to the earth. By rights the interlocking movements of these worlds should be harmonious, blessing all equally. Instead, the worlds depart from their orbits frequently, disturbing, abrading, and colliding, with consequences ranging from comic to tragic.

But that of course is not the end of the story. We may or may not be individually persecuted—I’m not about to venture into speculation about the details of the interplay among our own sins and errors, the malicious schemes of evil spirits, and the permissive will and providence of God. But salvation, escape from misfortune both trivial and great into a world of never-interrupted, never-even-diminished perfection, is specifically offered to each of us, at the cost of nothing and everything. Just our luck.


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