According to proverbial wisdom, “When you do succeed, the chances are that you were not trying too hard in the first place.”
This observation appears to contradict the idea of hard work, persevering effort, and Herculean labor as the secret of success. It challenges the Puritan work ethic that explains prosperity as the outcome of will power and determination. The wisdom of this aphorism, however, recognizes the dangers of stressful, joyless work that breeds tension and that overlooks a mysterious element that often explains success—luck.
Not everything that is received is earned by daily toil. Much in human life comes by way of a gift or through grace. The art of living never rules out the reality of good fortune or the surprise of luck. One must not take himself too seriously lest the playful child or the lighthearted amateur – known for their luck – disappear from normal life.
Gifts of Grace
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream portrays the magic of fairies that invisibly appear in the middle of the night and perform their “fairy favors” for the mortals who lie sound asleep and awake to find their minds cleared, their spirits rejuvenated, and their problems solved. While the harsh law of Athens and the severe authority of the father and the duke could not end the strife of the lovers by force or threats, the playful fairies reveling in the night end the discord with effortless gentleness. The magical love juice they anoint on the eyelids of the sleeping lovers works wonders that the grim deadly business of Athens in the workaday world could never achieve.
Many proverbs like “He caught fish though he were asleep” refer to the luck of fishermen who are not trying too hard. “Beginner’s luck” also recognizes the gratuitous nature of surprising good fortune or success that does not result from strenuous effort or careful planning but from composure and equanimity.
Throughout Western literature luck has always been personified as feminine, as Lady Luck or the Goddess Fortuna in Roman society, because of its special mystique, fickle nature, or hidden mystery. Lady Luck cannot be forced, manipulated, or tricked by calculating gamblers or plotting thinkers that imagine they can seize good fortune or circumvent bad luck. Fortune can only be invited or courted in the way a man woos a woman but never conquered by raw power.
In other words, man’s aggressive attacks cannot capture luck, but man’s receptive openness can invite and attract her. Luck favors the innocent and childlike with no hidden agendas or ulterior motives and welcomes the pure in heart.
Fortune in Fairy Tales
Many Grimm folktales like “Hans in Luck” illuminate this gift of luck that favors those without guile. Throughout the story shrewd traders dupe the innocent Hans carrying home his lump of gold and offer him something cheap or useless for something valuable as he exchanges gold for a horse, then trades the horse for a cow, then the cow for a pig, and next the pig for a goose, and finally the goose for a grindstone which Hans accidentally drops in a well.
At the end of his wearisome journey in which the weight of the gold burdened Hans, the horse threw him, the cow kicked him on the head, the stolen pig made him look like a thief, and the goose appeared worthless beside the grindstone when the tradesman promised “money in your pocket every time you put your hand in,” Hans considers himself “the luckiest man under the sun” because he is void of burdens, cares, and troubles associated with possessions. He exemplifies the proverbial luck of the fool who succeeds because he is not trying too hard.
The Art of Angling
The best commentary on the phenomenon of luck is the art of angling that Izaak Walton made famous in his seventeenth century classic The Compleat Angler. He writes, “I and my companion have had such fortune a fishing today.” He shows that recreational fishermen practice an art that cultivates the virtues of patience and hope, the ability to be silent and receptive, and an appreciation for the simple pleasures of leisure. These fishermen who partake of “the sweet content” of their favorite recreation have nothing in common with the harried owner of an estate troubled with many lawsuits.
Walton distinguishes between the “meek, quiet-spirited” fisherman who welcomes and trusts luck and the “serious grave men” obsessed with money-making who live at a frantic pace, “a hodge-podge of business and money, and care, and trouble.” The art of angling, then, is a paradigm for the art of living.
In proverbial literature luck, of course, is often called the nickname of Divine Providence. G. K. Chesterton observed that the more coincidental things seem, the less coincidental they are.
Luck is a sign of God’s sense of humor, his love of surprise, his joy in giving, and his delight in blessing the childlike, innocent, and the pure in heart by fairy favors in the night and fish caught by pure chance.
Header Image CC Theophilos