How can we turn bad luck in our lives into a good thing? Plutarch offers a strategy.
In classical Athens, the first well known democracy in the West, most offices were decided by lot.
If you wanted to “run,” you threw your name into the equivalent of a hat, and crossed your fingers.
When someone’s lot was picked, they got to be General Secretary, Archon of the Year, Supreme Court Justice, or whatever it was. If not, you can always try again next year.
Citizens observed keenly the way an ambitious man dealt with losing. Did he smile and shrug? Congratulate the winner? “Better luck next year!”
Did he complain? “Unbelievable. Democracy promotes incompetents!” Did he claim he saw “lottery fraud?”
The Athenians would take note. It was a way to predict how someone would conduct himself when he did finally win an office.
As Plutarch says:
He who fails to draw a lot must bear his fortune without taking offense. For those who cannot do this would be unable to sensibly and soberly abide good fortune either.
This is also useful observation for people who aren’t running (or raffling) for office.
Plutarch actually brings in this example in a long Letter of Consolation to Apollonius.
His friend, Apollonius, has just lost a son. What fortune could be worse?
But this was his lot. It was up to him to bear his misfortune with dignity, and with virtue. According to Plutarch, grief is perhaps the most destructive of all emotions.
Grief can literally produce insanity, as one of the poets observed.
But Plutarch’s point with this example, for his friend and for us, is this:
The way you respond to bad luck is an indicator of how you will respond to good luck, which can be just as destabilizing.
Misfortune gives us a chance to “buy the dip” as they say in trading. And so, when good times return, we enjoy more upside.
We appreciate fortune, we won’t waste it on trivialities, we won’t lord it over people who lost out this round. Because we know it could be us next time.