A short but serious look into bad luck and our daily life
A Story Promised
In The Real Reason We Ask “Why?”, I argued that ignoring or denying evidence that life is not fair is ultimately untenable — especially when we consider the most tragic cases of suffering. We either wind up blaming victims for their bad luck, or deny victims their pain (regardless of whether the victim is us or someone else).
However, admitting that life is not fair, or that bad things can happen to good people, creates its own problems. This is because we still have to act as if life is fair. Getting up every day, going to work, trying to be good people, and trying to raise good kids seem to depend on life being just and fair, or an assumption that such efforts will at least be worthwhile.
Our daily actions thus seem to conflict with our beliefs, which can generate cognitive dissonance or internal tension (or possibly worse: anxiety, depression, or PTSD). To resolve this conflict, I indicated that we need to have a story — a convincing narrative that tells us why it is rational to keep going, even when or if bad things happen to us. We need to be able to make sense of both what we believe and what we do.
Religious answers abound in this space, of course, but I promised at the end of that article to provide a satisfactory story that neither requires nor precludes religious views.
So here it is. This story actually weaves together several different points from past posts — it is not necessary to read these, but I’ll include links along the way for those who are interested.
The First Side of Suffering
My story involves weaving together two different aspects of suffering or the truly “bad” events that can happen to good people. The first aspect is the random nature of suffering, specifically when we talk about its distribution. In Why You Have It So Bad I show how a random distribution leads to Poisson clumping, which means that, far from suffering being fairly or evenly distributed, we can expect it to “clump” onto unsuspecting people.
Above is what 100 units of suffering looks like when it falls randomly on 100 unsuspecting people. People (represented by squares) can have radically different outcomes for no reason whatsoever, except that they happened to be in different spots.
In this particular randomized distribution run, many people got no suffering (at least 25%), about half the people got a little suffering (between zero and one units of suffering), and a small portion of unlucky people (in this case, 8%) experienced much suffering (three or more tragic occurrences) in their lives.
Random distribution thus means that not only do bad things happen to good people, but that some people will have way more suffering than others.
The Second Side of Suffering
While suffering may often get distributed randomly, it has a side that is very NON-random. This relates to its rate or level. In The Suffering Equation (my very first article on Medium!) I show how the level of suffering of populations (or sub-populations) is highly dependent on three factors: its level of resources, knowledge and kindness.
As but one example in that argument, I show how life expectancy varies dramatically according to the wealth (GDP) of a nation — this is the so-called “Preston Curve”:
The fact that life expectancy varies according to wealth (resources) on a global scale and through time indicates that we can affect levels of suffering (at least some crucial aspects such as child mortality rates), regardless of its random distribution.
Such relationships between human efforts and outcomes in terms of health or well-being are well documented (see the WHO for more information). The key conclusion for our purposes is that with resources, knowledge and a willingness to apply both (kindness) we can move a long ways towards reducing random and tragic suffering.
Putting the Sides Together
Now we need to put these two aspects of suffering together. Because suffering gets distributed randomly (to a great extent), life is fundamentally unfair. However, we can still affect the rate or level of suffering.
Consider the diagram below:
Here we see suffering getting distributed randomly (as before), but the units of suffering are reduced by 75% (to 25). In this population of 100 individuals, then, no one (happened to) experience more than two tragic events, and the vast majority experienced none. This situation would obviously be preferable to a population that has 100 units of suffering, even if the suffering is still not fairly distributed, and even if good people still sometimes suffer.
Of course, on the other hand, things could be much worse. For example, consider a population of 100 individuals living with the plague or under a very cruel and powerful King in the middle ages. They might have experienced far more than 100 units of suffering, something akin to what is shown below:
This would be a comparably miserable world with 400 units of suffering across 100 individuals. In this random distribution run, only 6% experience zero to one tragic event, and the vast majority suffer more than three tragic events in their lives (69%). In such a terrible world, almost everyone suffers (and a lot).
When we feel that life isn’t fair, we may question why we should continue to go to work every day, pay taxes, or generally act “responsibly.” Giving up, or giving in, means withdrawing from such prudent goals.
But this responsible (even Meaningful) stuff that we do every day is extremely important and valuable. It is the very stuff that contributes to or sustains our knowledge, resources, or kindness — the three things that affect overall suffering levels related to ourselves and others. And the two pictures above (25 versus 400 units of suffering) illustrate why levels of suffering are important even if suffering gets distributed largely at random.
The story that makes sense of the contradiction between our knowledge that life is unfair and our (seemingly opposite) actions, then, goes like this: although life can be terrible at times, I should continue to act as if life is fair because it helps reduce just how terrible it is.
In effect, this story says that my actions in life are not really dependent on life being fair, but are instead about making life more fair. And once we understand that, we can proceed to fight the good fight without internal tension or contradiction.
At the end of the day, we still cannot guarantee that we personally won’t be (or won’t continue to be) unlucky, but as one of my favorite philosophers once said, “The future is as may be, but we persist hopefully.”¹ This hope is warranted as long as we continue to persevere, even when life is not fair.