On the Nature of Luck

On Thursday, I was travelling in Toronto, and I’d stopped for lunch at a restaurant at Yonge and Davisville — some place that was halfway between fast-food and sit down, which had two television screens showing the news. I happen to look up and saw the news that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 had crashed.

My first reaction was, “Again? What is up with Malaysian Airlines?” It has only been a few months before Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 vanished from the radar and disappeared beneath the waves of the southern Indian Ocean.

The true nature of the MH17 disaster was revealed through the next few hours, of course, and revealed to be a far less mysterious tragedy and more a wartime atrocity, but I still couldn’t help but marvel over the coincidence. Malaysia has been afflicted by not one, but two major air disasters this year. What are the odds?

But I couldn’t help but wonder what other awful coincidences this would provoke. In the same manner that at least 160 people have experienced the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I wondered how many people in Malaysia, or elsewhere, would have known passengers or had family members on both planes.

Well, I haven’t heard of anybody, yet (I’m sure there are), but from The Telegraph comes this report of a Dutch cyclist who had booked passage aboard both flights MH17 and MH370, but cancelled these at the last minute. Maarten De Jonge is understandably elated to still be in the land of the living, saying:

“It’s inconceivable,” he told Dutch public broadcaster RTV Oost. “I am very sorry for the passengers and their families, yet I am very pleased I’m unharmed.”

“How happy I am for myself and my family that I was on this flight and did not take it the last moment; my story is ultimately nothing compared to the misery in which so many people are dead,” he said.

“Attention should be paid to the victims and survivors. Wishing everyone affected by this disaster a lot of strength.”


I appreciate his desire to downplay this coincidence, and to refocus attention on the victims of both flights, but this hasn’t stopped people from calling Maarten “the luckiest man in the world”.

Is he, though? For me, real good luck is having a winning lottery ticket fall into your hand, or to be in the right place at the right time to meet a person who will change your life for the better. Maarten’s luck is luck in the sense that he is “lucky to be alive”, but how unlucky do you have to be in order to have been almost killed, twice over?

As I type this, however, I recall that there was a show on Fox in the early 1990s called Strange Luck, where the protagonist went through his life with a strange superpower — wildly amazing coincidences kept happening to him. Some of these coincidences were for the good, but many were for the bad. In the aggregate, however, the bad and good luck combined to achieve the ends of the story, for him to nail the villain, rescue the good people, and save the day. Erin used to state that she had “strange luck”, since wild things happened to her, some good and some bad, but they’d shaped the person she was and the world she lived in, and so she made her peace with that.

Maybe that’s at work here. Maarten’s luck was not bad (he is, after all, still alive), but I couldn’t call it good, either (he came very close to death). But it is still a powerful moment that will make you reevaluate your priorities, and be thankful for the good things in life that you have. In this way, such brushes with bad luck can be positive, if it makes you value your loves even more.

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