Risk

David Rieff is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir will be published in January 2008 by Simon & Schuster.

To the other guy, you're the other guy

Upon being told by a mutual friend that the American transcendentalist Margaret Fuller had confided "I accept the world," Carlyle is said to have remarked, "She'd better".

Rationally, we are with Carlyle when we think about chance. But deep down, it's not even clear that we're with Margaret Fuller. For to accept the cold reality of chance is an affront to ego, perhaps even to selfhood, at least if by chance you are prepared to include bad as well as good fortune.

In the 1960s in New York, there was a city government-sponsored road safety campaign whose tag line, superimposed over a soft-focus car crash, was: "to the other guy, you're the other guy". It was tough stuff – particularly for the period (our current ability to pull cigarettes cheerfully from packets swathed in doomy warnings like "smoking kills" would have been inconceivable back then). But it encapsulates the reality of chance far better than hazy visions of roulette tables and unexpected adventures.

Of course, this is not the canonical view. Mostly, we seem to now use chance and risk interchangeably. But while grammatically "taking a chance" and "taking a risk" are not far apart, the two have little to do with each other. Risk is not controllable, but it can be evaluated. There is a risk to smoking, going to a dangerous place, working in a dangerous industry. It can be quantified, and, irrational as most of us are, we can usually (not always) evaluate it with some common sense.

In contrast, chance is in many ways a misnomer. When we think of chance, surely we are more apt to think of the "chance meeting" (meaning with someone you may fall in love with, or at least have an unexpectedly good time with anyway), or of some unexpected windfall, as in "games of chance". While everyone knows you can lose at these games, people wouldn't play them if they didn't think they were going to win. In this sense, we speak of chance as if it were synonymous with good fortune just as, these days at least, we speak of luck as if there were only good luck.

Viewed reasonably, the kind of false hope that this version of chance represents is, as the Baptists say, both a snare and a delusion. Go to almost any newsagent in an American city and you will see long queues of people waiting to buy lottery tickets and spending on average at least an hour's wages if not more. Rationally, most know it makes no sense to spend money on such foolishness. But it is inhuman not to hope, and lotteries and betting on horse races are a way of hoping. Anyway, if reason dreams, its dreams are dull.

Chance is a fantasy of rescue – whether it is the unexpected love affair in a previously unhappy life or the sweepstakes' cheque rescuing you from the drudgery of the office or the shop floor. But of course, the reality of chance is far different, far more neutral. Chance is also the sudden diagnosis of a malignancy, or simply having the bad luck to be born in Darfur rather than in Dorset. Chance is the indifference of the stars ("cette vaste espace m'effraie" and all that) and the indifference of the chromosomes.

It would be inhuman to expect people felled by death or disease not to ask "why me?". Those who mock such a reaction, or think themselves above it, are either very advanced members of whatever species they may belong to or (far more likely) have never, or rather not yet been confronted by the distinguished experience. Impossible, no matter how rational you think you are, not to at least start by thinking that this shouldn't be happening to you. And thus we come full circle to the stark essence of chance: to the other guy, you're the other guy.

It makes no difference, of course. You can't go around acting as if you were already dead, which, if you really believed in chance, you would probably have to do. So instead, the reality of chance – which is the randomness of things, their finiteness, and the irrelevance of one's own wishes – gives way to the elision of the idea of chance with the idea of good fortune, which consoles instead of terrifying, as chance, properly apprehended, should do.

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