I was in the back and talking to another person when it happened. The five of us quickly got out, shaking from shock, and inspected the scene. The car had hit a male kangaroo, a young adult, and it was still alive though prone on the road with blood trickling from its head. As people fumbled with their phones to ring Help for Wildlife, the animal’s breathing became shallower until, after a minute or two, it passed from this world. We dragged the body away from the road and stared at it in mute silence for a few moments, then got back in the car and drove off to our destination.
Had I and the others decided on a different route to take us to the start of our bushwalk that early autumn morning the young kangaroo, its fur still new and clean, would have been alive. Had we been on that road a few seconds earlier or later it would have bounded across the bitumen and into the bush on the other side. We consoled the driver by saying it was luck, pure luck. All of us had driven along roads in the area hundreds of times and not struck an animal once.
We humans have always sought to understand and explain our world. In the early millennia of our history there was no such thing as a random event because all phenomena were thought to be evidence of some sort of design or intent. In the magical world-view of an early culture, an explanation for the incident with the kangaroo could run something like: the animal was an omen sent by a god to warn us of bad things to come; or the animal possessed a spirit that had done wrong and its violent death was recompense. Rational Western society has abandoned thinking of this kind; as the supernatural has been taken away from this world, randomness or chance has appeared to fill much of the void of the unexplained. According to this view, there are no ulterior motives or meanings to certain events other than the natural variables that lead, for instance, to a kangaroo being on a particular road at a particular time and a car heading towards it.
The one key problem with randomness is that it is impossible to say with certainty what is random and what is not. Meanings of some kind are always, teasingly, under the surface. For instance, we could look at the kangaroo’s death in light of the speed at which the car was going or the distractedness of the driver in a car full of people not being sufficiently attentive to the possibility of animals in the early morning. Scientific inquiry itself only proceeds by asking questions about the unknown, and in the process of gaining more insight revealing other areas of mystery. The uncertainty about what is truly random invites an extension of awareness that can encompass many perspectives for the most holistic understanding possible.
Holistic understanding builds an intimate relationship with mystery. At the same time as it seeks meaning out of the unknown, it leaves ample room for more mystery at every turn, seeing it not as a bad thing that must be overcome but as a teacher and guide.
What we call luck is actually the intersection of mystery and the physical world; and it serves as a reminder of the unknown at work in our lives. Looking closer, we see it everywhere and in everything. All life, indeed the existence of the universe, depends ultimately on luck – not randomness or chance, but the meeting of mystery with a creative spark that produces material reality. What was it other than luck that created you or me? Any number of factors could have conspired to prevent two particular people coming together, for their sexual union not to be fertile, for their coupling to produce not you but some other human being. The same applies to all other aspects of life. Natural and human systems that support life in a myriad of ways do so always holding the hand of mystery and are always beholden to grace, the union of dark and light that set them in train in the first place.
How, then, do we reconcile luck with meaning and purpose? As we enquire with openness into the nature of things, so meaning is gradually revealed to us; meaning that is necessarily conditioned by the culture and time in which we live. The further we progress in this way, the more is there a deep sense of things as they are, as they need to be, an awareness of solidity amid constant flux. The task is then to serve this core or essence behind the appearance of things, to experience and know it more. Serving it is intrinsically about acting in ways that affirm life, that build love and connection, nurturing the multiplicity and variety of forms in the created world.
There is a saying that “you make your own luck”; that is, as you act in the world, so mystery responds by reinforcing and furthering your intentions. That’s right to a degree, but I think there is a more humble position that is closer to the general truth, one of “you make of what luck gives you”. The life we are given, including its slings and arrows of misfortune, is a gift to be nourished and to be given back a thousand times in good acts to all. The Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “The Fates lead him who will; him who won’t they drag.” Him who won’t disregards the creative life essence as it manifests in himself and others, and as a consequence is “dragged” through a seemingly random world. Him who will responds to inner nature and is therefore led in a purposeful way, in turn furthering its designs and the multifarious beauty that is constantly unfolding all around.