Good Luck? Bad Luck? Who Knows?


Bala Muhammad



In school, we all remember, the teacher used to ask: where did we stop the last time? That’s the question I want to ask today: where did we stop last week? If we remember correctly, the very last word was ‘Goodluck’, wished upon us by a person who wishes us so well. Therefore, there is no better way to continue our discourse than to dwell for some length of time on Luck, good and bad.


I have been reading a number of books recently. One of them was the Autobiography of Siaka Stevens, one-time President of Sierra Leone, a book I acquired during my sojourn in Freetown last April. In the autobiography, former President Stevens narrates this story which he said he liked so much:


“There is an old Chinese story about a peasant who lost his only horse. His neighbours said, ‘Your only horse has disappeared. Bad luck!’ The peasant replied, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?’ The next day the horse returned, bringing twenty wild horses with him into the peasant’s compound. The neighbours said, ‘You have gained twenty new horses. Good luck!’ The peasant replied, ‘Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?’


“Then the peasant’s only son broke a leg training the new horses. The neighbours said, ‘Your only son has broken a leg, and the harvest is at hand. Bad luck!’ The peasant replied, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?’ Within a few days, soldiers from the Imperial Capital arrived the village and conscripted all the young men, except the boy with the broken leg. The neighbours said, ‘Your son has escaped conscription while ours are all gone. Good luck!’ The peasant replied, ‘Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?’”

Everyone likes luck. Goodluck. Luck, says Wiki, refers to that which happens beyond a person's control. This view incorporates phenomena that are chance happenings, a person's place of birth for example, but where there is no uncertainty involved, or where the uncertainty is irrelevant. Within this framework one can differentiate between three different types of luck:


1.    Constitutional luck, that is, luck with factors that cannot be changed. Place of birth and genetic constitution are typical examples.

2.    Circumstantial luck, that is, luck with factors that are haphazardly brought on. Accidents and epidemics are typical examples.

3.    Ignorance luck, that is, luck with factors one does not know about. Examples can be identified only in hindsight.


Thomas Jefferson once said: “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Added Tennessee Williams: “Luck is believing you are lucky,” while Donald Trump, the extremely lucky multi-billionaire, said: “Everything in life is luck.” Summing it all up, Larry King said: “Those who have succeeded at anything and don't mention luck are kidding themselves.”


Another book I recently read is Beyond Coincidence by Martin Palmer and Brian King. The authors narrate several stories of luck, both good and bad.


Take the case of Frenchman Alain Basseux, a laboratory technician working in Wiggington, near York, England. He lost his temper when a motorist cut him up at a roundabout. He chased the offending car for two miles, forced the vehicle to the side of the road, yanked open the door and grabbed the driver by the shirt. At this point he realised that the man he was assaulting was his boss.”


Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows? But Basseux was lucky: the local magistrates conditionally discharged him with a two-year suspended sentence. His rather sharp lawyer had convinced the court that such behaviour was not uncommon or unusual in France. And luckier still, Basseux kept his job.


And then the Curse of Superman. This is not the title of a book, but a theory which had stood the test of time by confirming and reconfirming itself. Perhaps from childhood you have enjoyed Superman, first the comic, then the television series, then the blockbuster movies? Perhaps you also remember that scores of children have for generations jumped from on high to premature ends by mimicking the flying superhero?


Now, we have learnt from religion, haven’t we, that mortals must never act God. Superman, more than any other film, takes ‘playing god’ to really interesting dimensions. What many people don’t know is that a jinx seems to have afflicted many of the people associated with the comic book character Superman.


“The bad luck began with the two men who created the superhero back in 1938. Writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster signed away their rights to the Man of Steel for a pittance; their various attempts to sue the publishers for a fairer share of the millions made from their creation all failed. Shuster had become a recluse by the time he died.


“The actor Kirk Alyn, who played Superman in the 1940s Saturday matinee serial, claimed it had ruined his career. He struggled to find work and eventually gave up acting. George Reeves, who starred in television’s The Adventures of Superman in the 1950s, also struggled professionally when the hit series finished after six years. In 1959, at the age of 45, he was found dead from a single bullet wound to his head. The official verdict was suicide, but friends were convinced he was murdered.


“Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in four films in the 1970s and 80s, was thrown from his horse in 1995, broke his neck and ended up on a respirator and in a wheelchair till his death. Margot Kidder, who co-starred as Lois Lane in all four of Reeve’s Superman films, damaged her spinal cord in 1990 in a car accident while filming a TV series and was confined to a wheelchair for two years. A history of drink and drug abuse and mental illness eventually led to a nervous breakdown. Richard Pryor, who co-starred in Superman III, was struck down with multiple sclerosis after filming was completed.” Bad luck.


Now, don’t we have leaders who are playing god, who are strutting around as Supermen? Have you not seen them, as they cut you in traffic, with their sirens a-blaring? The God we worship is a very jealous God: if in doubt, refer to Sura Ikhlas in the Qur’an which begins: “Say, He Allah is One…” So let all those who play mini-gods on our roads and with our money beware of the Curse of Superman. Never, for example, cut us in traffic, or you get bad luck.


Psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, spent ten years researching into luck, good and bad. He wrote a book The Luck Factor. Lucky people, he found, smiled more. They engaged in more eye contact. They persevere with Chinese puzzles (while unlucky people, he observed, discard them in seconds, convinced they could never solve them).


Lucky people, given a newspaper and told to count the number of photographs, spot the half-page message on page three declaring: LOOK NO FURTHER, THERE ARE 42 PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS NEWSPAPER. Unlucky people, on the other hand, plough on through to the end, oblivious to the opportunity to curtail their task.


Here are Professor Wiseman's four top tips for becoming lucky:

  • Listen to your gut instincts - they are normally right

  • Be open to new experiences and breaking your normal routine

  • Spend a few moments each day remembering things that went well

  • Visualise yourself being lucky before an important meeting or telephone call. Luck is very often a self-fulfilling prophecy


Bad luck is rather too easy to come by. Some psychologists argue that misfortune is the natural state of things. The pessimists, they say, have got it right. But good luck is achievable. It requires a measure of blind faith, a huge amount of energy and the ability to see the bad things that happen to you as challenges which will help you become a better person.


Palmer and King continue their narratives in Beyond Coincidence. “Douglas Johnson took a wrong bus one afternoon, but didn’t realise his mistake until he had travelled some distance. Instead of getting off, he decided to continue the journey to enjoy the scenery. By chance the bus took him past the apartment building of a woman who had been a client of his two years before. Impulsively he decided to get off the bus and visit her. He made his way to the apartment and knocked on the door, but there was no reply. Then he smelled gas. He broke down the door and discovered the woman lying unconscious, her head in the oven. By an incredible coincidence, Johnson had arrived just in time to save her life.”


“A heart attack during a remote transatlantic flight might be considered extreme bad luck. It happened to 67-year old Dorothy Fletcher, of Liverpool, on a trip to Florida, but on this occasion good luck swiftly came to the rescue. When the anxious stewardess put out a call for a doctor, 15 cardiologists stepped up. They were on their way to a cardiology conference…”

To Allah be the glory, the Best of planners.


Some superstitions suggest carrying a rabbit’s foot around for good luck. But someone had since reasoned that there is no greater folly than that: that foot did the rabbit no good.

We end with Jean Cocteau: “I believe in luck: how else can you explain the success of those you dislike?”