Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Winning at life

 My friends, have you noticed how often we hear people talking of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in life? It seems that many people consider life to be a game that can be won or lost. And when someone ‘wins’, we often deem that win to be well deserved. For example, people may say that the rich deserve their wealth. And I suppose people may also claim that the poor deserve their place in life.

But is this true? Can you win and lose at life? Is life akin to a game? In ancient Greece, people didn’t speak that way. If someone was poor, people wouldn’t think of them as losing at life. Instead they would suggest that the will of Tyche, the god of fortune, had not been working in their favor. The Romans also had a god of fortune. Her name was Fortuna. She was depicted as holding a tiller by which she could shift one’s fortune. Because her actions were totally out of our control, people would suggest that the poor were ‘unfortunate’ rather than losers at life.

Perhaps people who consider life a game will find this a strange way of talking. But it does depend upon what sort of game they consider life to be. Is it a game with well defined rules in which a person can win or lose by using their skill and intellect? Is life, for example, like a game of chess? If so, it may make sense to speak of winners and losers. After all, we wouldn’t hesitate to say that the winner of a chess game deserves their win. To win they must have played better than their opponent. And, of course, we presume that they started the game with an equal number of pieces, and that they both played by the same rules.

Would we use the same language to describe someone winning at a game of chance — for example, a slot machine or lottery? Would we suggest that someone who wins the lottery deserves the win? I don’t even think the word ‘win’ in games of chance means quite the same thing as it does in a game of chess. There is no skill involved in a game of chance. The outcome is totally in the hands of fortuna. I wonder if life is more like this than we care to believe.

Of course, we do need certain skills in life. But much of what happens in life is well beyond our control — including our position at birth. Is it not true that fortuna decides who is wealthy and who is poor at birth? And is it not true that this starting position can have a massive impact on a person’s life? If so, it would seem incorrect to suggest that a poor person is losing at life and deserve their position (if by ‘losing’ we mean in the sense of a game of chess rather than a game of chance).

I am interested in what would happen in society if we shifted our language. Rather than speaking of winners and losers in life, shall we instead speak of those who are fortunate and those who are less fortunate. Seeing things in this way may prompt those who are fortunate to help the unfortunate more so than if they truly think they deserve to be ‘winning’ at life.

- Socrates (21c)