This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
How civilization, our world, and our personal lives will be redeemed through tragedy
by Brock M. Stout
An Anthology of Hope
Bad Luck = Good Luck The Philosophy of Fortuitous Misfortune text and concept © Copyright 2010 by Brock M. Stout All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without permission from the author.
Here is how this book started. A friend with whom I regularly correspond once shared with me his career story over a Dean & Deluca lunch. After earing an advanced degree in mathematics, he was hired as a derivatives trader. After earning millions of dollars for the bank during the first year, they paid him a paltry bonus of $5,000. That was a tiny fraction of what they should have paid, based on industry practice. They knew he was young, that he didn’t know the benchmark, so they gambled that he wouldn’t complain. His comment to me was that “if they had paid me ten grand, I would have thought I was worth about ten grand.”
But $5,000 was insulting. Paying off his student loans would take forever. That was bad luck. The insult compelled him to look for a new job. He soon found a seat at a boutique derivatives house that ideally matched his skills. There he found his “sweet spot.” That skill match brought annual salaries in the $5,000,000 range every year for a decade. Most people would call that Good Luck. I left my avocado sitting on the side of the plate, and offered no protest when he paid for my sandwich. This has, as have many other experiences in my life, caused me to ponder a peculiar concept: things we see as bad luck bring good luck into our lives. I have spent a few years researching the topic, and now believe it is not an anomaly. Long, treacherous, chuckhole-filled paths lead you to your life’s destination. But the crookedness of those paths heightens your enjoyment when you do arrive. A lot of the
misfortune in the world and in our lives leads us to destinations too wonderful to have ever imagined. This work is partially a collection of examples. Some may seem flippant. Some may seem farfetched. Most are overly simplistic. But they are models for a new thinking. This book will convince readers that the darkness and despair in our current world are sowing the seeds for a much better world. Seeking the silver lining in each tragedy is not silly; it is essential to improving our world and our individual lives. This is the Philosophy of Fortuitous Misfortune. The glass is always half full. Always. The Philosophy of Fortuitous Misfortune encourages a whimsical view of life as we search for redemption in tragedy. The point of this book is NOT to demean suffering or to make light of others’ tragedy. The point is NOT to say that we must cheerful in any bad situation. The point
is to find meaning in suffering, so that we can make better decisions. The mood in some stories is serious, in others the mood is light hearted, and both should be okay. Disagree with the facts in any particular example? Feel welcome to contact us and complain. (We are already involved in a lawsuit with the ghost of one historical character, alleging that “this book puts words into my mouth which I did not actually say.” But the statute of limitations is probably on our side.)
This book is short. Please read until the end.
Seedlings of Revival
One exemplary story from history is the fall of Constantinople, an event many Christians still lament. As a preface, we hold no illusions that all Christians were good all of the time. But Christianity had taken idol-worshippers with their brutal practices such as human sacrifice, and over generations gradually turned them into civilized people, and many of them into pious people who treated each other much better than they would have. Here is the story. In the beginning of the Christian era, Constantinople was a center of
Christianity. As a principle church hub, it was important both symbolically and substantively. Then, as Constantinople was successfully promulgating the gospel of renewal, tragedy unfolded. The city was threatened from the Muslim world. In 1453, the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed II lay siege to the city. That Spring, the 7,000 defenders huddled together and, every few minutes, peered over the wall in horror. The Sultan's army, estimated at somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 troops, gathered to attack. Would God save the city from such a large army? Even with such small numbers, the defenders almost succeeded in repelling the invaders. They waited for promised assistance from the rest of Europe, but apparently no one could be pulled away from watching the World Cup. So after almost two months the city fell to overwhelming
numbers of conquering Ottomans. In what was probably history's first attack by bombardment, the Sultan and his huge army at last prevailed. The Turkish soldiers, exquisitely crafted swords gleaming, overran the inhabitants. Christendom’s grandest city was suddenly no longer part of Christendom. The Ottoman armies were then free to loot the city, murder the unfortunate inhabitants, and rape the nuns. Many citizens were piously praying in the church when Ottoman soldiers came in and slaughtered them1. Picture in your mind any one of hundreds of scenes from that day, and you will surely become ill. We absolutely could not call the campaign a happy event. War is everything General Sherman said of it. This is one of those events about which we might ask, "how could God let that happen?" Or in other words, it was truly bad luck. So in the West, some people look back and ask: “Weren't
We have not mentioned atrocities committed by Christian Crusaders in the same area 250 years previous, but we ask here that readers keep the story simple.
Christians the good guys?” Maybe they were and maybe they weren't. What is certain is that following that line of questioning can spoil the rest of the story. Now our perspective has changed—we can see the whole forest—and we realize that this event was necessary for nurturing the trees of civilization’s development. We perceive that a greater purpose was springing from the seeds of this tragedy. Greeks, fleeing the violent scenario, took their books with them to Europe. This learning gradually spread throughout the Roman Catholic regions. The knowledge dissemination is thought to have ignited the Renaissance, the fire that eventually warmed Europe out of the Dark Ages’ long winter. The survivors felt no sense of mission. They were not thinking, “Hey, let’s change the world,” but rather “Let’s not die.” But how can we count the number of lives that have been blessed by the Renaissance? Europe, and indeed the whole world, has been greatly elevated by it.
► ► ►
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Constantinople http://www.deremilitari.org/resources/sources/constantinople3.htm http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/vasilief/constantine-xi-capture-of-constantinople.asp
Out of the Frying Pan
The story continues. The Ottoman Empire thrived for over four hundred years after Constantinople became Istanbul. The empire stayed strong, protected by armies of soldiers from throughout the empire who were periodically conscripted, beginning in 1389. The system was effective. Boys from many tribes were brought together, and they all became part of a larger identity. Then, in the early twentieth century, the Young Turk revolution again required another draft. But attitudes were different this time. It was in the age when minority groups within the Ottoman domains were asserting their identities, just as ethnic groups were doing within the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as the Serbs. So when this draft was announced, various peoples requested to fight alongside others of their countrymen, identifying themselves with unique uniforms. They vowed to valiantly fight for the larger empire, but wanted the martial camaraderie of their neighbors. From a modern perspective it might seem fair, but imperial authorities refused this concession, fearing it would discourage cohesion in the empire. The realm must have already seemed shaky. So many young members of the Ottoman Empire determined to avoid being drafted into the imperial army. Many fled overseas. One was a teenage Lebanese Christian named Yusuf Slim Haddad who left for Mexico in 1902, docking in Tampico before meeting up with his family. From the perspective of our day, when people drive to the gym so they can walk on a treadmill, such a journey is quite extraordinary. Being forced to flee one’s country must seem like bad luck, but the new home must have also
felt very exciting, a true frontier for someone who had always lived near the ancient cradle of civilization. The city’s population was already about 500,000, and it was growing. The island city had not yet started sinking from mismanagement of groundwater as in our day. The pollution problems rampant until the 1990s were still unknown. The future looked bright. In 1911, Yusuf opened a dry goods store in Mexico City. But the timing was really bad. The short-term future was suddenly not so bright. After he got settled, Yusuf suddenly faced the Mexican Revolution, which ultimately brought a shocking death toll to the populace. So in his young life, he again encountered bad luck. Some people might have given up and returned home. But Yusuf was a clever opportunist. He observed that the revolution made land cheap,
so he invested in real estate. The revolution ended, and Yusuf prospered. In the end, all the bad luck turned for his good. Lebanese immigrants have positively impacted various places and personally succeeded. But not on this scale. Here the story gets more interesting. Yusuf’s son, Carlos, followed in his father’s example. In business, Carlos did as his father had done, seeking opportunity in crisis. It worked. Carlos is currently the wealthiest person on Planet Earth. He would never have become so as the son of a soldier in Lebanon or Turkey. Here, the point of Fortuitous Misfortune philosophy is not that people can flourish despite obstacles, but that the obstacles cause the success. An impediment can deflect a person, village, or a clan into a better direction. That is the point of this philosophy. Today’s difficulty is the path to tomorrow’s achievement.
An Irritation, then the World Shrinks
Without personally losing a loved one, no one can understand Samuel’s grief. To truly appreciate his feeling is probably not possible without losing a beloved spouse. The subject of our story was a celebrated artist about 200 years ago, using his painting to share his political views, at a time when the philosophical definition of America was forming. The country was young, and many of the smaller questions had not yet been answered. Samuel kept painting, through his art contributing his opinions on politics and also on his religious views. He went to London to continue studying art when he was still young. When
he arrived, the young man sent a letter to tell his family he had arrived safely. The phrasing shows an early frustration with the slow speed in long-distance communication: I wish that in one instant I could tell you of my safe arrival, but we are 3,000 miles apart and must wait four long weeks to hear from each other.2 In the time it took for any communication to cross the dull-gray sea, a person’s life could have significantly changed. Someone might send news, but by the time it arrived, it had stopped being news and had become a historical account. Samuel continued his study, eventually becoming a member of the Royal Academy, but eventually returned to the U.S. and established himself as a painter. One day in 1825, he was in New York painting a full-length portrait of the Marquis de
Encyclopedia of World Geography, Vol. 13, p. 417, published 2007 by Sarup & Sons, New Delhi
Lafayette (remember that name from the American War of Independence?) A letter arrived to notify the artist that his wife was on her deathbed in Connecticut. Poor Samuel dropped his brush and rushed home to see her, and the clip-clop of the horse hooves must have seemed endless, never bringing him closer to her. He probably used the best transportation technology of the day, but it was not fast enough. When he arrived, he learned that his beloved wife had already been buried. If only he could have learned of her condition earlier, he could have left earlier, Samuel lamented. When Samuel had been separated from his family as a young man studying in England, he felt frustrated, but this time the artist felt much more than frustration. He was distraught. Such was the speed of communication in his day. Breeding faster horses or training more skillful riders could only make tiny improvements. So Samuel began thinking about how to improve the speed. He enlisted the help of scientists, he studied, he experimented.
For years, he spent a great deal of energy just to secure continual funding for the project, and spent many more years defending his patent. But the grief he had felt at his wife’s passing pushed him forward. Throughout history, how many great inventions have been dreamed up because someone became angry? That is how our painter became an inventor. Samuel Morse eventually created the telegraph, employing his new Morse Code. He developed the lines, and the way of communicating over those lines. Very few people in any generation shine in their avocation, but Samuel did it twice. Within a few years of his discovery, telegraph lines covered much of the earth. And the planet suddenly became a much, much smaller place. His developments were born out of the tragedy of his wife’s death, as he sought to prevent others from the tragedy of news delayed too long. Throughout the entire world, generations of people have been benefited by Samuel Morse’s tragedy.
He could have continued to create art for us to peruse as we stroll through museums on rainy Sunday afternoons. But instead, he changed the world. Think about this: Samuel ignited the launch of the information age at the very beginning of the industrial revolution. suggested reading: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/393059/Samuel-F-B-Morse
Were slaves in the South mistreated enough?
What an outrageous question! So now, here is the crazy reasoning behind the question. If slavery in America had been more benign—no violence, no destruction of families, no severe neglect—it would have still been evil. It would have still been human slavery. But it probably would not have raised the ire of the average American. People of Conscience, in those days called abolitionists, would have spoken out. But their pleas might have been met with responses like, “look here, these people are happy. We take care of them.”
It was the exceptional, the egregious cases that drove us from the comfortable hearths of apathy and into the wilderness of action. News of the various horrors is what created momentum for changing a system that was so evil on so many levels. Until the public became aware of the real situation, abolitionists were extreme outliers.3 Consider two questions:
How many people suffered unspeakable cruelty and severe privation? How many innocent people died because of slavery in North America?
To both questions the answer is the same: enough. It was sufficient that the system was finally abolished.
Consider that John Brown, a potent abolition force by himself, was killed before he was able to personally see an end to slavery. It is kind of sad that in this life he never saw the accomplishment he had triggered.
We can follow the admonition of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and express gratitude to hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in what became the War to End Slavery. But that is not all. We can also express gratitude to those who gave their own lives, livelihoods, and liberty, living in bondage. Most people, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, probably thought the war would end much sooner than it did. The Civil War turned out to be not so civil. It was horrific and grotesque and ripped apart thousands of communities. And yet it could be called civil, because it sowed the seeds of civil rights. The thrust of this philosophy is NOT that perseverance will give us the strength to wait out the bad in order to get to the good. It is NOT that the grass is greener despite the smell of fertilizer. The mindset’s foundational analogy is this: a truck accidentally dumped nasty-smelling manure on your lawn and you thought you could not endure it all Spring, but now it has made the grass much, much greener on your side of the fence, and it turns out in this case that green grass
saves your life. Want more upside from slavery? Ponder for a moment the breadth of music that developed out of all this. Picture mature cotton fields, green with tiny dabs of white. The plants produce both soft, fluffy cotton and razory bristles, and through generations of reaching through the bristles and picking the fluff, people soothed themselves with singing. They created music that evolved into one of the reasons that almost all countries run cultural trade deficits with the U.S.
Keep Reading. We’re just getting started.
Most conscientious people today are desperately seeking some unifying theory to explain the new complexity of life. We are all frazzled by increasing daily velocity and overwhelming demands, and bewildered because all the rules to explain relationships between ideas seem less relevant. So we grasp at any semi-plausible explanation we read about or hear on television. Ideas that claim to explain what is happening in the new age look like pieces of wreckage floating by, and we grab onto them, hoping
they will save us. We are unable to explain current historic shifts, so countless bestsellers have capitalized on this discomfort by offering overarching explanations as comfort. Some are brilliant, and some are like lozenges that only mask our pain. Regardless, a simple, overriding explanation still evades us. Tying together all the new phenomena, so that we can relax and stop thinking, is proving to be complicated. But maybe we don’t need to explain the new human experience with one philosophy. We can find important meaning in each event. We don’t need to give ourselves
over to fate, to some giant collective drift that sweeps us along. We need not struggle beyond our ability to discern. We all have the ability to realize that bad luck does, in fact, equal good luck. If you cannot discover a positiveresult from some horrible event, then increase your effort until you can.
“Thank you for the Bomb”
Tokyo remains hot into September, and the humidity becomes unbearable when a typhoon front approaches the main island. Keeping students engaged on a hot September evening can be challenging for a teacher. In the late 1990s, this author was teaching a course for university students in Tokyo in that environment. Most of the students were young, but one was in his late sixties. He looked even older, as few of his teeth remained. His English was less confident than most of the other students, so he never answered questions or volunteered opinions during lectures. One evening, he approached me after class. At first he hesitated, then blurted out:
“Thank you for… dropping a bomb … on Hiroshima!” My mouth sort of hung open. Having been born 20 years after the bombing, I’ve never felt that I deserved to be blamed. And I didn’t feel I deserved any credit for it either. While my mind considered these demurring sentiments, he gathered his nerve to explain the odd assertion. He continued. “You saved my life. I was young boy, and if the war continued, I would be part of next wave of recruits.” (His English facility gradually improved, somewhat, as his courage grew.) But his belief was not merely self-serving, as he had thoroughly researched the topic. He cleared his throat. “Not just me. If the war continued longer a few months, millions of Japanese would have died. Of starvation.” He emphasized that in colonies across Asia, tens of millions would also have starved. “So atomic bomb save many, many lives.”
He then deeply bowed to indicate sincere gratitude. Apologists for the atomic bombing plan say it was justified, because it saved the lives of GIs who would have died in the invasion. The scale is significant: planners at the time estimated that the lives of 1,000,000 Americans would have been saved, compared to the 140,000 who died in Hiroshima bombings. This reasoning might sound as though we only value American lives, but the reasoning doesn’t even account for all of the Japanese soldiers who would have perished, all the civilians who would have died in combat (women and children were rigorously trained to fight Marines with gardening tools), and all the starvation that would have continued in a land that was out of food. It also ignores the risk that it may have continued for a longer time than the U.S. War Department calculated, due to new technology such as the jet planes that Japan had secretly developed. The Imperial Army was even working on atomic bomb technology, aided by technology transfer from German scientists. The next bombing, in Nagasaki, is less justifiable, especially since almost no time was given
between the two incidences to determine a response. But even the combined death toll of both bombings was miniscule compared to the lives saved by the decision.4 Others concur with my senior student’s opinion. Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, said “I have no doubts about whether the two atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary. Without them, hundreds of thousands of civilians in Malaya and Singapore, and millions in Japan itself, would have perished.”5
John W. Dower reports 210,000 killed in the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki out of a total of 393,367 civilian deaths from U.S. bombing of Japan in World War II. Another 150,000 civilians were killed in the battles on Okinawa. See Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. 5 Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times, 1998. [59-60]
The point is NOT that the atomic bomb victims’ lives are nor were inconsequential. The point is that those who died in the two bombings should be honored—not as victims—but as heroes. They gave their lives, involuntarily as it was, in saving the lives of so many others. The many millions throughout Asia who survived but would not have, and each of the multitudes of their descendents, can give thanks every day to the many who died in those two cities. ◆ ◆ ◆ Certainly we should connect to this story an important sidebar. The Second World War is believed to be the deadliest war in history. More people died than in any other war of which we are aware. (Other wars had killed nearly as many. The Mongol invasions, for example, killed almost as many people6, and that was in old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat, which in this
Numbers were fewer, but on a comparative scale: 30-40 million compared to 40-72 million. Even Chairman Mao may have killed 40 million of his countrymen, and estimates of those he killed through starvation only are as high as 43 million. An interesting chart can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_by_death_toll.
author’s mind is more brutal because it personalizes each slaying. From the German perspective, the Thirty Years War was deadlier than either of the world wars.) But in terms of total deaths from one conflict (if including the Sino-Japanese War as part of World War II), then the Second World War has the highest death toll. Sad story. Here is the good news: the war in the Pacific killed fewer infantry soldiers than it might have, thanks to the career disaster of one man. Chester Nimitz failed to be accepted into West Point, ending his dream of an army career. He tried the navy, and finally began a promising career. But an incident occurred which brought failure. Again. The ship he commanded ran into a mud bank, and this led to court martial rather than promotion. The Texan remained in the Navy, but was relegated to studying diesel engines for submarines. Bad luck. But Nimitz did progress upward to be a high-ranking officer. Our version of the story is that this court martial had two results. First, he was not at the top of the Navy hierarchy when Pearl
Harbor was attacked, so did not incur any blame.7 This allowed him to become the top naval commander in the Pacific. Secondly, he was able to employ a different strategy, focusing his experience on submarines. That study, during the time his career was derailed, developed into a sub warfare stratagem. Navy subs decimated the Japanese merchant marine, so unsupplied Japanese soldiers were more easily defeated, and the mainland was deprived of raw materials. That brought a quicker end to the war in the Pacific. And it facilitated the island-hopping strategy that allowed the bombing of mainland Japan. Most analyses of the Second World War ignore the crucial role American submarines played in the Pacific Theater.8 That is not to say that no suffering was inflicted by the strategy, but the war and all its horrors certainly were shortened.
In need of a scapegoat for the disaster, the Navy relieved Admiral Husband E. Kimmel as commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet. Nimitz became his replacement at Pearl Harbor on December 25, 1941. (www.famoustexans.com/chesternimitz.htm) 8 see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chester_W._Nimitz
◆ ◆ ◆ The Nimitz experience was not the only wartime career failure to change the world. A young man named Norman Borlaug tried to enlist in the U.S. military after the Pearl Harbor attack but was rejected because of a labor regulation. He was left out. So he continued his studies in agronomy. Borlaug’s research ultimately created the Green Revolution, and he is credited with saving the lives of a billion people. That is BILLION, with a “B.” (Some sources place the number at two billion.) He could have instead proved his bravery by dying on a beach on Guadalcanal. Borlaug might be the most famous person whose name you’ve never heard. ◆ ◆ ◆ War often brings happy externalities when viewed in the long term.
Between 1803 and 1815, Napoleon’s armies swept across Europe. Various coalitions formed as attempts to stop them, but most of the time the French seemed unstoppable. By creating the idea of military logistics, Napoleon’s advisors were able to create much larger armies than had been possible in the past. They say powerful men often meet a Waterloo, and Napoleon also met his Waterloo. (Apparently it was called Waterloo.) Napoleon was defeated. In the meantime, however, his governance remade the continent. The Holy Roman Empire disappeared, the Spanish Empire finally melted away, and Europe modernized. How many people died? Estimates range from 3.25 million to 6.5 million (see Wikipedia if curious). Each of those people had a mother. Further, political life was chaotic as borders continually moved and as coalitions of countries changed, shifting allegiances. It was a time of great turmoil in the daily lives of many millions of people.
Surely various positive things did spring from the situation, but the author is particularly grateful for one contribution: Civil Transcripts. The French system of civil record keeping was enforced in all hamlets under French dominion. So Germany, Italy, Holland, parts of Poland, and other areas adopted the system of recording people’s names, birthdates, family relationships, and other information that has been invaluable to historians and genealogists. The practice eventually spread to most parts of the world. Even today, the universal yearning to know more about our ancestors has made family history research one of the most popular uses of the Internet, where millions of hours are logged in search of marriage dates, christening records, and dates of birth. Do you know your great-great-great grandmother’s birth date? Does knowing that help you feel connected to your past? Well, then thank Napoleon Bonaparte. His administration’s decision, over 200 years ago, makes it possible for you to feel kinship with your kin. If you think the significance is overstated here, then you have not been introduced to the
pastime of genealogy. This gift gives meaning back to our lives, something that had been displaced by the franticness and superficiality of modern life.
A Model of Divine Favor
We live in a world on the brink of catastrophic doom. Believers and Atheists both know that, whether it comes from angels or aerosol cans, gross iniquity or greenhouse gases, evil or emissions, the end of the world is nigh. Not so. Throughout history, the human family has picked itself up by its collective bootstraps and found a way out of inevitable disaster, time and again. Sometimes even miracles have prevented extinction.
So let’s stay on the subject of Japan for another moment. Japan can serve as a shining model for the thrilling truth that disaster will always be conquered and the human race will continue. The story is set on the fifteenth of August in 1281 AD. August in western Japan is the least comfortable time of the year, squeezed between the stifling summer heat and the humidity of the pending typhoon season. The Mongol navy, mostly acquired from recently conquered Chinese and Korean capabilities, lay anchor off the coast of Hakata Bay in southern Japan. Fighters from conquered nations sat on the ships, waiting for the signal to attack. For the first time in history, Northern Asia would soon be united into one dominion. Overwhelming human numbers, combined with the world’s most advanced technology (acquired through China, a recent imperial addition), plus worldclass fighting strategy, had brought early success in the campaign to conquer the hand-to-hand fighters in Japan.
Mortars they made by filling ceramic balls with gunpowder and sometimes including iron bits and launched from catapults, more accurate short bows, battle tactics that ignored stiff samurai rules of engagement, and other advantages, would have overcome the simple ramparts protecting the shore and they could have quickly swept the island chain. The warriors only awaited the order to disembark and finish the task of conquering. Surely someone during the night must have noticed waves crashing over the sides, spraying salty mist onto their faces, or the oppressive barometric pressure. The invaders apparently didn’t mind the rain, even when the winds began driving it horizontally. But someone should have remembered that a typhoon could decimate a fleet, as it had destroyed a third of the Mongol fleet only seven years before when they had attempted this same scheme. Perhaps language differences or cultural barriers amongst the ranks, or perhaps animosity between the Mongol commanders and their Korean and Chinese subordinates, prevented anyone from addressing the problem.
Regardless of the reason, a large part of the waiting fleet ended up at the bottom of the bay. The devastation was far more severe than it had been in 1274. On that day, expansion of the Mongol empire ended at the Korean peninsula, and Mongol prestige suffered. And for the second time, Japan won the Lucky Country of the Year award.9 But for almost 700 years, all Japanese knew they hadn’t been lucky. The Shinto gods had protected their country through Divine Wind, or Kamikaze. They didn’t need any more proof to maintain their faith, but more proof came, after the massive social upheaval in the latter half of the nineteenth century, at the end Shogunate era. In our day we experience a recession and cry about our hardships, but this was a tumultuous situation unimaginable to most of us.
Recent archeological investigation indicates that the operation’s failure is less attributable to bad weather than to hasty planning. Kublai was in such a hurry to invade, that the Mongols were unable to construct enough sound sea-going craft, so used too many river boats and shoddily-built ships.
Japan was doomed to become a colony of some European power, just like every other Asian country (except Thailand.) The only way to avoid the same fate as the neighbors was to instantly become equal in power to the European countries. Japan needed to convert a premodern, entirely destitute, and completely domestic-focused chaos into a sophisticated, advanced economy and nation. But they didn’t have trillions of dollars to spare for building modernization projects, an army and navy, and an infrastructure, or for developing modern political institutions from scratch. The task was impossible. So the Shinto gods stepped in again. They cursed Europe with a blight upon the silk worm industry. European silk manufacturers, desperate for product, turned to silk producers in Japan’s countryside. The cottage industry in Gunma prefecture in particular rose to the occasion. They built silk factories with French and Italian assistance. The factories succeeded in exporting silk, bringing in the foreign currency necessary for the country. The Gunma region would some day produce fighter planes for World War II, and later Subaru automobiles.
After the tide of war had turned against them in the 1940s, Japanese leaders called on this superstition to protect them yet again. They enlisted boys to prove the sacrificial spirit of the samurai by flying suicidal dive bombers into Allied ships, hoping to arouse the sympathy of the gods again. Typhoons were in fact a serious problem for at least one Allied warship, but this time, for the most part, the Shinto gods remained aloof. The Allies conquered Japan. After carpet bombing, atomic bombs, and after being overrun by white barbarians, the country was in utter ruins. Its importing capacity lay at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and its industrial capacity had been completely destroyed by B-29s. And the country could no longer rely on raw materials from Manchuria. While Japan has seen several crises before and since then, nothing compares with those conditions. But Japan did bounce back, and became better than ever. Within two decades, Japan’s economy was quadruple10 what it had been before the war! And the world still drives Subarus.
see Chris Mayer, in http://dailyreckoning.com/made-in-japan-a-new-bull-market/
Underlying a nation with a history of tragedy is a sense of confidence born from overcoming tragedy. AND SO IT WILL be with our whole world today. Shinto gods might not be the means of our deliverance, but delivered we will be. Sometime, maybe in the near future, we will look back and be surprised at how far the world has progressed, even in economic terms. suggested reading:
► http://www.pref.gunma.jp/english/history/index.htm ► http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunma_Prefecture
Our courage fades. We become disheartened. Research on the topic has enlightened our understanding of stress: people who suffer particularly nasty, prolonged horrors often experience a decrease in future courage. They use up their stores. Their bravery batteries run dry and never fully charge again. And so it may be with us if we are not careful. Those cases are not common, and they are not crippling to society; the system compensates. Providence lightens the future loads of the severely shell shocked.
Further reading: "The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue"
Gratitude for Personal Misfortune
This is a very simple example to show how all these other examples can apply to an individual’s life. In college, this author quite fancied a certain girl. I thought she might be The One, my soul mate. She was, in fact, hot. I wanted to ask her out, but it never happened. I was busy with homework, so I procrastinated. Mid-term exams, then home for the weekend, then a writing project, then final exams…then, my soul mate left for the summer. I dragged my feet, and deeply regretted it. But I knew she
would be back. But she met some guy over the summer and married him. I missed my chance. He didn’t even deserve her. I knew I would spend the rest of my life wallowing in regret. I berated myself for a week. If only I had not been so busy, or not procrastinated. My life was ruined because I had so poorly managed my priorities. I would have married the girl of my dreams. Bad timing had forever ruined my chances of happiness. I felt pretty stupid. A year later, I ran into her at a convenience store. She was quite congenial, though I hardly recognized her. Married life had been very unkind to her. She had really “let herself go.” But it didn’t matter, because by then, I had met the Real Girl of My Dreams (RGMD), and had married her. The previous season’s bad timing was truly good luck. The former girl probably was only having a bad day when I ran into her, but I take it as an intended sign that she had never been the right one. Love the one you’re with, as Stephen Stills taught us, because the one I was with was the Right one.
Surely this author is not the only person to experience such a situation. Almost everyone can reminisce about past relationships and feel terrific relief at having instead met a different person. The separation can be tremendously difficult, but in the long run makes us happy. And so we see that Fortuitous Misfortune does more than change the world. It redeems our personal lives.
Communism, the most odious system devised since the ancient world, killed so many people that we cannot be sure of the total count. Restrained estimates place the body count at 100 million people, with some estimates considerably higher.11 But the number of deaths is only one segment of the story. The scale of human suffering from oppression and enforced poverty is incomparable to anything in recent ages. If we add in the suffering caused by its sister National Socialism (here we’ll call it “Racist Socialism”), then the Misery Index (MI) rises
These numbers might be high or low; R.J. Rummel (Death By Government), the documenter of genocides by governments in history, places the numbers killed by Soviet regimes alone at 54,000,000 to 60,000,000, but even anti-communist scholars believe it was less than half that number.
even further. But that was a long time ago. Now the Soviet Block relationships are anulled, the Chinese army top brass invest their means in consumer electronics firms, and only two or three small holdouts remain to torment their citizens. It has mostly disappeared. Where it did exist, however, it has left a generation who are disciplined by hardship. While dwelling in bare state-owned tenements, working where they were told to work, and buying only what they were allowed, they developed virtues such as frugality and modesty that the obsessive-compulsive consumers in the West should emulate. As one of my professors said many years ago, Democracy—like its economic counterpart Capitalism—always seems to sow the seeds of its own destruction. Staying sharp requires discipline. Free Society is a good thing because it provides choice. But allowing choices eventually leads people to choose spending their time at arcades, then along
comes the Disney Channel and the society’s collapse is near. People become addicted to freebies, so vote themselves into slavery. Alas. On the eastern side of the fence, people are already heading in the same direction, but they are decades behind. Did any additional good came of 70 years under communism? Of course. The experience brought freedom of religion, for one. Previous to the Reign of the Proletariat, Russians were Orthodox and Chinese were generally Buddhist or perhaps Taoist, etc. Traditions were quite rigid. Other belief systems could never gain footholds, so religious diversity languished. Now the formerly-socialist world is enriched by a diversity of religions and beliefs, a range of various sects, atheism, and many other belief systems. All this, we can now see, was germinated by two generations of no religion.
Humanity’s experience can be explained in many ways, but a case could be made for saying that religion does better when no single sect holds a geographic monopoly. A little healthy ecumenical competition seems to do for religion what it does for commerce: it makes everyone more circumspect and more diligent.
The Original Information Superhighway
The Christian population of the Iberian Peninsula was conquered by kingdoms in Northern Africa, and for hundreds of years was ruled by Muslims until Christians armies gradually pushed them back. The kingdoms succeeded in completing the Reconquista of the final territory in 1492 (providing surplus capital for Christopher Columbus to sail the ocean blue). Actual numbers of casualties are probably unknown. Any war, particularly a multi-century war, would disrupt the lives of residents in both mild and severe ways. When viewed from the perspective of their travails, a responsible conclusion is that the region would have been better off not having been conquered because the result was
the same: it again became part of Christendom, right back from where they started.12 We disagree. Fortuitous Misfortune philosophy asserts that the occupation immeasurably helped Western civilization. It provided a conduit for scientific knowledge to pass from Islam to Christendom. The contribution was significant. It may have been as important to the Renaissance as the preservation of Greek and Roman learning by monasteries. It vastly enriched the Spanish and Portuguese languages. Cordoba became a significant center of European scholarship. Consider only the contributions of one court official named Ziryab, from Bagdad. Tradition tells us that from his influence we gained many innovations that include multi-course formal dining, seasonal clothing styles, and even toothpaste. A man who could move people with his music, was an expert on fine dining, invented dental hygiene, and taught us to occasionally change our clothes is a man I should very much like to meet someday. And
The assertion here is not that being ruled by Christians was better, as life for Jews, for example, was in many ways better under Muslim than under either Visigoth or Christian rule. The point is that a lot of trouble was taken and no change resulted because they ended as they began.
he is a very, very small part of this story. He was just one of many Moors who significantly improved all of European civilization. And that is not the end of the story. Think how much more rich are the cultures of Latin America, with their Iberian and pre-Columbian customs both being seasoned by Northern African and Iraqi influences. Think of just one of hundreds of Arabic words, ojalá, which means, “I hope,” but literally translates as “God willing,” and the cultural and attitudinal influence of using this word in everyone’s daily life. And consider the Mujedar architecture, or the Spanish lusterware pottery which Spaniards exported throughout Europe. Let’s feel grateful for the Moors. And for Marzipan.
Pestilence and Disease
London of the 1850s was very crowded. It was a city unprecedented in size. The empire was booming, liberal immigration laws brought in the downtrodden and opportunity seekers from several continents, and the thriving economy in the capitol required labor. New neighborhoods were developed, but they couldn’t keep up with the pace of growth. Slums became more crowded. Urban plight was rampant. Police feared entering certain neighborhoods, and squalor in some places could be horrifying to visitors. Describing certain areas, George Gissing started a
novel13 with images of “evil smells” and the impressions of “miasma that caught the breath” from sewer-grates. Diseases must have felt they were quite welcome. Our story is about the London Cholera epidemic in 1854, which was much like cholera outbreaks of the past: many people became sick and died. The biggest problem was the same: experts severely erred in their thinking about the disease’s cause. Unfortunately, almost everyone in the scientific community was off track, believing cholera to be caused by miasma, or bad air. Lack of information or reliance on misinformation had in the past always prevented researchers from trying other options and discovering the true cause. Cholera was a disease that had plagued humanity for millennia, but received less attention during ebb times, as everyone shifted focus to whatever was the next calamity tormenting them.
The Day of Silence, 1893
But a particularly serious situation schemed to bring sufficient attention to the problem. These conditions made the scale 1854 more severe, when during that year cholera broke out in the neighborhood of Broad Street. Discovering the outbreak was simple. People kept dying. The solution was more complicated. John Snow was the oldest of nine children, which may have made him an obsessive controller as many oldest children are. He had also been raised in a poor neighborhood, which may have created the power of empathy. Snow was unsatisfied with tolerating cholera. He had a revolutionary idea, but was mocked for his assertions that cholera was not caused by “miasma,” partly because he was flouting established beliefs and partly because he had born into a farming family. Really, how could someone with his ancestry have been able to understand large-scale issues? Dr. Snow was, in fact, a remarkable man and scientist.
During the cholera epidemic in London, 1848–49, Snow proposed the unconventional notion that the dread disease was caused by a particle that was ingested orally, rather than by a befouled component of miasmatic air. Then, during the epidemic of 1853–54, he gathered the body of data that others would cite after his death as conclusively supporting his theory that cholera was primarily spread by sewage–contaminated water. These investigations — locally around the Broad Street pump, and more widely into the water supply of South London — are still taught to epidemiology students today as models of scientific reasoning.14 Another obstacle might have been that the reason was difficult to accept. Who wants to believe they are drinking water with poop in it? But Snow was relentless. He unwearyingly drew maps of the city, plotting where the deaths were occurring. Then he sought information about what was different in those spots. He
learned that they were all drinking from the same water sources. Thus he isolated the cause, and now cholera is unknown in the developed world. The bad luck in this story is that so many people died in the history of this disease, and particularly in 1854. But the philosophy of Fortuitous Misfortune contends that it was all for good. It is likely that John Snow would not have had enough data points to isolate the source, if fewer lives had been lost during that particular outbreak. Researchers might have been distracted or would not have been able to follow up on the hypothesis. We can imagine that at some point since then scientists would have discovered the cause, but in the meantime more suffering would have occurred in the world. Based on his work in developing germ theory, for his development of the methods that have helped defeat other dread diseases since, for pioneering the use of anesthetics, and for daring to be a vegetarian long before it was cool, Dr. Snow deserves our admiration. If you ever contract severe stomach flu and are vomiting and suffering from diarrhea and you feel that you might die, remember that people actually used to die that way. And remember Dr. Snow’s
perseverance and dedication.
Massacre as Prescription
Terrorists today understand that tragedy grabs headlines and grabs public attention. That is why they create tragedies. But this particular incident was not a staged event. Innocent people were slaughtered by real soldiers. The city of Amritsar is in the region of Punjab, near the Pakistani border. It is the center for the Sikh religion. On April 13, 1919, people gathered there for a festival. Public gatherings had been banned, so British and Gurkha troops arrived. They fired on the crowd. This was not like a couple of rounds fired by a spooked National Guard. These troops in fact killed 400 and wounded 1,200 others. British Brigadier General Reginald Dyer later said that more would have been killed, but the troops ran out of ammunition.
The Amritsar Massacre, as it now sometimes called, or the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, was so grotesque that it made the equivalent of the evening newscast in England. Everyone heard about it. If General Dyer did not win the Cretin of the Year award for 1919, then whoever did win deserves a retroactive apology. The Indian public, many of who wanted reform of the colonial system, finally pressed for independence. The resistance was finally hardened, so we can accept that a horrible tragedy brought a change for good, as the eventual result was independence. ◆ ◆ ◆ On the same subject, we should also remember that as bad as the colonial era was in India, through it the country was vastly improved in many ways. A notable example is the reality that colonial rule ended human sacrifice in India. Fortuitous Misfortune Theory does not believe that colonialism is good of itself. But as always,
this philosophy seeks to learn of good that comes through tragedy, including brutal massacre and subjugation. And here we see that billions of lives have, in some ways, been steered toward something better only after passing through affliction. In conclusion, we could say that the tragedy of colonialism brought benefit, and tragedy helped eliminate colonialism. ◆ ◆ ◆ While on the topic of human sacrifice, it should be noted that the Europe’s tragic conquest of Mesoamerica ended that practice in the Western Hemisphere. For all that we rail against the Spanish conquerors, Latin America is in many ways much better off than it would have been following the pre-Columbian trajectory. Imagine these groups—who ritualistically tied down an innocent person and ripped out the still-beating heart from the chest—colonizing Europe and imposing their customs. So, as much as we love to complain about the horrors of Mesoamerican conquest, immense good has arisen from it.
We will continue to find the happy result of tragedy.
Supermodel for the Human Race
Participating in Olympic track and field is tremendously difficult. So imagine excelling. Now, imagine excelling with a sprained ankle. Impossible? Wilma Rudolph was accustomed to doing the impossible. As a child, Wilma was not expected to walk, much less run. She had overcome polio, and was eventually able to hobble around using leg braces until she was age 12. Her life continued to be threatened by other illnesses throughout her childhood. But Wilma was a fighter. Children born into large families learn how to fight and survive, and
Wilma’s family was as large as four large families: she was the 20th of 22 children. Wilma consistently exercised her crippled leg, and that is why we have a story. Her childhood had been calamitous, but it forced her to perform focused exercises that she would never have done without polio having created the need for those exercises. One day she took off her leg brace. And eventually she ran, and played basketball. Coaches noticed Wilma. Eventually she helped the women’s 4x100m relay team win a bronze medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The crippled girl became an Olympic medalist! But apparently she couldn’t be satisfied with that. So she returned four years later to Mexico City 1960, and won three gold medals…with a sprained ankle! That was the culmination of a career that has inspired hundreds of millions of people, all with different upbringings and experiences. The idea of overcoming adversity to athletically succeed is a popular theme in movies, with a score of film producers building careers out of the concept. But that is not Wilma’s story. The adversity involved might make the success into a more heart-warming
story, but Fortuitous Misfortune Theory postulates that in this case, as in so many others, the adversity is what creates the success. Adversity doesn’t polish the story; it makes the story possible. Athletic dominance came from the countless hours of extra attention to special strength-building exercises for her crippled leg.15 ◆ ◆ ◆ The Olympic medals may not have been Wilma’s most heroic achievement. She went on the become a school teacher.
As impressive as her achievements were, her greatest ordeals may have come after retiring from athletics: she became an elementary school teacher.
In the early days of World War II, the Axis powers seemed unstoppable. Nazi armies were over-running Europe and Hitler was preparing to invade Russia. The Western World was soon to be dominated by National Socialism. The future of liberty looked grim. One bright spot was in the Mediterranean. The Italian military had been struggling to conquer Greece, and had failed twice. So Hitler put off his plans for conquering Russia, and focused his unstoppable military on Greece, conquering in 24 days, despite the valiant resistance of Greek and British troops there.
That was very unfortunate. One small flame in the fight against totalitarianism was extinguished. Then Germany re-deployed for the Soviet campaign, delayed by a few weeks. Historians do not agree on the point of whether or not the Greece campaign actually prevented success on the Eastern front. But it is a fact that German troops progressed to a point within sight of the capitol when the winter weather bogged them down. After that, cold-accustomed Russian troops gradually pushed the Germans back west. Even if Wehrmacht armies had conquered the entire country, they may not have been able to hold it16. But if they had successfully conquered Russia, Germany would have been able to shift some fighting power to the western front, possibly bringing the collapse of England. From where would Eisenhower
This author was told by a professor in university that the armies of the Third Reich would not have encountered the citizen resistance as they had in other conquered nations, after hearing accounts of Russian people welcoming the Germans (at first) as saviors from Stalin.
have launched a continental invasion? The war may have ended very differently. National Socialism may have become the reigning philosophy in the Western world. Racism taken to the extreme may have become the dominant philosophy of our day. So we should give thanks for the people who gave us deductive reasoning, college fraternity names, and pita.
Plagued by Plague
Life was difficult for almost everyone in Europe of the Middle Ages. The excruciating drudgery and the struggle to obtain food each day was broken by only occasional excitement, which was limited to such activities as being conquered by neighboring armies, being drafted into foreign wars that benefited no one outside nobility, and by events where any sliver of personal dignity was trampled upon by those higher up the food chain. Sometimes the excitement that broke the crushing tedium was a desolating disease sweeping the continent. A particularly horrible event was what came to be called the Black Death. Historians do not agree on how many people died, what caused the scourge, or even why it is called the Black
Death. All we know is that at least a third of Europeans—and perhaps as many as 60 percent— died in outbreaks in the 1340s and over the following century. Imagine becoming feverish, then noticing burning bumps on your neck and inner thighs. The bumps grow, become black, and burst open, oozing pus and blood. Then, most likely, you die. Or you might have different symptoms, such as coughing up blood, and then you die. Losing many millions of human lives was not the only crisis. Other results were a general increase in disregard for the future, diminished piety, and sickening persecution of Jews and other people randomly chosen to blame for the devastation. And that was the only story in Europe. The plague was devastating in parts of Asia as well. Even the most Pollyanna-esque of optimists cannot look back and find good in this event. But Fortuitous Misfortune Philosophy, ever persistent, finds two positive outcomes. First, the European economy shifted to become more favorable for serfs. They were suddenly
in shorter supply, so as anyone who sat through Econ 101 could predict, the price went up. The serfs became more valuable and rose in status. Nobles, reluctant to soil their own hands planting and harvesting grain, were forced to bid for those who could work. The situation did not immediately raise them to a higher status, but they were more valued than they had been. Life became a little better for them, and not just temporarily. Life was upgraded in many regions. The second benefit that comes out of the event is disease resistance. This might seem obvious, but cannot be overstated. Europeans who did survive the Black Death developed a change in their chromosomes, and that makes their descendents more resistant to HIV. Here is Juan Enriquez, speaking at a TED Conference in Feb. 2003: It turns out that if you take the human species about 700 years ago, white Europeans diverged from black Africans in a very significant way. White Europeans were subject to the plague. And when they were subject to the plague, most people didn't survive, but those who survived had a mutation on
the CCR5 receptor. And that mutation was passed on to their kids because they're the ones that survived, so there was a great deal of population pressure. In Africa, because you didn't have these cities, you didn't have that CCR5 population pressure mutation. We can date it to 700 years ago. That is one of the reasons why AIDS is raging across Africa as fast as it is, and not as fast across Europe. And we're beginning to find these little things for malaria, for sickle cell, for cancers. We hope that saving Africa will not require devastation on the scale that Europe once faced. We hope that our civilizations working together can produce new life without horror as a prerequisite. But that is a topic for another venue. The point here, rather, is that the descendents of survivors are much hardier than they would have been, because of sacrifices that their ancestors made. Let’s give thanks for those forbearers.
Studies of entrepreneurship typically focus on two areas: on discovering the right opportunity, and on how to develop character traits like perseverance or self-assurance. Business journalism fails to focus on bad luck as a predicator of success. Josh James started an internet-related company during the entrepreneurial explosion of the late 1990s. His destiny was to become another young internet tycoon, like a lot of high-profile stories from that short era. He asked a classmate at Brigham Young University to drop out of school with him to help
found a company. He must have been a persuasive guy. John Pestana only had one month to graduate, but threw away five years of sacrifice and dropped out anyway. It was all worth it: a few years later, a larger internet-related company offered to buy their venture for $57 million. How can anyone spend that kind of money? Devising ways to waste cash was all they needed to do for the rest of their young lives. After the announcement, the state governor drove down from the state capitol for a photo op with the two. Those were happy days. Then the bad news came. The buyer went bankrupt. “Two weeks after the deal collapsed, we had layoffs. Forty-eight people, 10 days before Christmas. Those aren't good days. You don't forget that,” James recently reminisced.17 Failure seemed inevitable. “There were times when I lay down on the floor at night, close to
crying, and said, ‘I'm done. I can't make payroll.’ Then my wife would come over and kick me and say, ‘Get up and figure it out."18 He did. They re-branded, changed strategy to focus on larger clients, and began moving forward. In late 2009, the company was acquired for $1.8 billion. Surely we can call that good luck. The original deal falling through almost brought catastrophe. But that bad luck is what made the second deal possible. Would you rather have $57 million or $1.8 billion? Obviously the bad luck, which postponed acquisition, was ultimately happy. But this ship-load of cash for the owners is not the whole story. The internet itself, that enormous global knowledge enabler, is more valuable because of the knowledge provided by Omniture.
So should readers hoping to become tycoons throw themselves into the jaws of calamity and ruin? It might actually be a good strategy. We’ll use Josh James as our pattern for success. ◆ ◆ ◆ To that we can add a finger lickin’ good story. The KFC story was inserted, then removed again from the manuscript. The reluctance to include the story comes from the fact that the convenience of being able to buy chicken ready-cooked instead of having to fry it ourselves is not going to keep our planet in orbit. Harlan Sanders is said to have failed at numerous ventures, but when he was 40 years old he started a gasoline stand, and eventually started serving chicken to his customers. By starting a chicken restaurant, Sanders eventually became a multimillionaire, but he did not even start the company until age 65. In fact, when the interstate highway was built, his restaurant was doomed. Bad luck. But that
threat prompted him to franchise, creating the system known to most people on this orbiting planet. Sanders contribution is not simply better chicken or a better franchise system. His gift is the hope that all of us can accomplish something in our old age as a result of bad luck. He is not the only example in history to fail, fail, and fail, then to finally accomplish great things, only after retirement age. But he stands as a recent model of persistence for anyone who still has life remaining.
Illness Makes Me Feel Blue
The Great War, also known as the War to End All Wars, was one of the most tragic events of the modern era. Millions of the young men who sat in cold, foul trenches for months or years were eventually killed. The good news is that at least it did end all wars. Oh, but not really. World War II, the next War to End All Wars, is, however, more palatable to us. Our understanding of World War II equals Good Guys fighting Bad Guys, and in the end creating
resolution. World War I equals colonial powers jostling for power,19 modern killing technology and archaic strategies combining to slaughter a generation of boys,20 then setting up the scene for an even bigger crisis. When 1918 ended and Kaiser Wilhelm was done fighting his cousins King George and Tsar Nicholas, a pall of exhaustion and despair must have covered the earth, even after the joyful Armistice when we celebrated the end of the senseless killing. But the senseless killing did not end. A far more powerful death machine began reaping souls just as the war neared a close: a viral strain erupted that would kill a larger number of people than the Bubonic Plague had done centuries earlier. Half of the war-time deaths of U.S. soldiers were from combat and half from this Spanish influenza, so named because of the eight million
That is what we’ve been taught as the cause of the war, but the reality is perhaps much darker. But that is a story for another time. This is a lesson that should not have needed repeating after the American Civil War.
people it killed in Spain. The global death toll (including civilians) from Spanish flu was many times that of the war. “The effect of the influenza epidemic was so severe that the average life span in the US was depressed by 10 years.”21 Think Spanish flu might be interesting to see? Like normal influenza, you feel tired and feverish, but much more so. Then your skin turns blue. People can no longer be certain of your ethnicity. Then you start coughing so hard that you tear your abdominal muscles. Blood, sometimes foamy, comes out of your mouth, nose, and ears. Some people reported other horrifying symptoms.
Billings, Molly, June 1997 in http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/)
What is the upside to this tragedy? Well, society now has a willingness to be aggressive in prevention and treatment when potential pandemics are discovered. It can be speculated that people were more compliant with public measures22 because they had been conditioned during the war to make sacrifices for the common good, as people do during protracted wars, and that set a pattern. Sometimes we now over-react to potential outbreaks. But when a pandemic could again kill 100 million people by suffocation, aggressive meticulousness in the short term might be a good idea. ◆ ◆ ◆ To this tale we could also add smallpox’s long episode in history. Declared in 1980 by the UN as officially eradicated, it was once a particularly fearful scourge. Some estimates say that an outbreak would kill between 20 and 80 percent of those
infected. Survivors were not especially fortunate, as they could be left horribly disfigured. That is a little better than the Black Death statistics, but it nonetheless instilled horror. Pity the poor little boy James Phipps. At the age of eight years, he was intentionally injected with the smallpox virus. Family acquaintance Edward Jenner had been researching a solution for the dreaded disease. He created a vaccine and needed someone on whom to test his vaccine. “This experiment might kill the test subject. Instead of a middle-aged person like me, how about that healthy kid whose whole life is ahead of him?” Whatever justification he used at the time, Jenner won the gamble. Phipps lived because proper vaccination is effective. And generations since have been spared the dread of this disease. Another remarkable fact is that this all took place during the French Revolution. Jenner was steadfastly searching to liberate humanity from death during a time when life may have seemed less dear.
Few experts agree on the causes of the Great Depression’s severity. Nor do they agree on what solved the problem. Everyone agrees that it was not very enjoyable. Many countries in the world suffered. In the United States, unemployment reached 25 percent overall. In some places it was worse (in Toledo, Ohio 80 percent!) Multitudes became homeless, a large portion of the rest felt desperate, and none of the attempts to fix the problem made much difference. This author’s grandmother gathered dandelion leaves for her family to eat as a salad. That was supper.
The Southern Pacific Railroad threw 683,000 people—and not only grown men—off of their trains. And that is just the totals from one railroad. The National Children’s Bureau reported in 1932 that 250,000 teens were homeless.23 These sorts of outrageous statistics could be shared all day long. Only after we began selling war materials to the Allies for gold did America’s economy begin to improve. But the saga taught us many things, and two things in particular. The first one is the value of thrift. Children and grandchildren have since been told, “When we lived through the Depression, we never wasted anything like this.” And so we have learned that wasting is bad, regardless of how prosperous we are. Thrift is a virtue in itself, not just because it creates future resources. And we need to be reminded of that every few generations. The second thing we have learned is that WE ARE STRONG enough to endure. Often when the stock market significantly dips, the U.S. government will become alarmed and prescribe
We can derive from the 1930 census that this was probably over two percent of all youths.
extreme measures to “avoid another Great Depression.” However, those measures are not to avoid a potential theoretical suffering. Havoc did happen, and it was awful. But we have experienced it, and we are okay, and now we know that about ourselves. This is true both individually and collectively. Most people from that era lived to tell the tale of their suffering (which they are always glad to do if any young people will sit long enough and listen.)
There WILL Come a Sunny Day
Everyone involved in the Vietnam War lost. First the French lost. Then the Americans lost, so the South Vietnamese government also lost. The only winner was the Viet Cong. But within a few years these communists became capitalists, so their entire purpose lost as well. So indeed, every participant in the conflict lost. So almost 60,000 Americans died, and one to two million Vietnamese people died, and nothing much changed in Vietnam in the long run.
But a sunny day has come. At least from the American perspective, something good did come from this multi-decade fiasco. Out of the situation came the War Powers Act, which requires a president to receive approval from Congress before committing military forces to fight overseas. The U.S. will have other Lyndon Johnsons, but they will have a little more difficulty in committing us to protracted wars. Further, about one and a half million Vietnamese immigrated to the U.S., immensely enriching America AND bringing a tradition of superb cuisine (especially the summer rolls with shrimp and rice vermicelli). About a half a percent of Americans are of Vietnamese extraction. (Betty Nguyen, CNN anchor and Anh Cao, U.S. Congress, are only two notables among many.) The U.S. would be less of a country without all of those immigrants. And because of associated turmoil, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, and ethnic Chinese emigrated to the U.S., each one of them bringing beautiful variety in cuisine, cultural enrichment, and new ways of thinking and approaching issues. That is something for which all Americans should be grateful.
Need more convincing that large-scale tragedy brings benefit to the world? At age 19, this author announced at a family reunion that he was moving to Japan on a special assignment. He was introduced to a great uncle, who was asked to add his congratulations. The uncle tried to mutter something positive, but his voice cracked, and he walked away. Uncle Wendell, it was later revealed, was part of the Bataan Death March. Serving in the beginning of the Second World War, Uncle Wendell fought in the ill-fated Battle of Corregidor, and was one of the 72,000 prisoners who surrendered on the promise of humane
treatment. He is one of the approximately two-thirds of the group who survived. So he was more fortunate than those who died from brutal treatment. Enemy soldiers disemboweled some. A number of prisoners were randomly shot without warning. Occasionally the hosts would walk up and beat someone to death with a rifle butt or stab someone through with a bayonet as they marched. Sometimes a soldier’s throat would be suddenly slit from behind. The psychological torture was also intense, even long after the march. This is an excerpt of Wendell’s letter to his mother: “Oct. 23-- They took an American out to measure him for his grave. Poor boy.” All the prisoners suffered forced starvation, and for some it was fatal. Because of constant suffering at the time, Wendell may not have felt so lucky to be a survivor. But he was lucky. He died only recently, after living a full life, raising a family, and building a
heritage for his many descendents. Between 5,000 and 18,000 men, however, died in the march. The fact that the range is so wide might be the most remarkable aspect: the numbers were so high, the situation so disorganized, and some information so skillfully concealed, that we are that unable to assess the real casualty rate. Numbers are difficult to confirm, because some escaped, and many died in the prison camp after arrival (between 30 and 50 per day). Regardless of which number is used, lots of men were killed and the rest were treated in unspeakable ways. Iris Chang, the world-changing author of The Rape of Nanking (among other notable works), became depressed during research for a book on the Bataan Death March and committed suicide. Overwork, combined with emotional drain from the disturbing reports from her research, pushed her over the edge. Okay, here we go again. The Fortuitous Misfortune mindset seeks to convince us that none of
those souls died in vain. The incident had a purpose, and the argument for that follows. America’s history has seen two categories of wars: long wars and short wars. Short wars carry reasonable price tags, incur lower body counts, and enjoy the support of the voters. Long wars sacrifice boys from innumerable families, run up large debts, and invite the rage of weary voters. World War II was a long war, and the public could have become impatient with the terrific sacrifices made by almost every household. They could have become irritated at sending their children to die for Chiang Kai-shek’s army in China. They may have cried out for a truce, and left Asia to wallow in totalitarianism24 until the present. But we can speculate that when the accounts from Bataan reached American ears, voters became motivated to continue the fight.
Disclaimer: some of the finest people this author has ever met are Japanese, and I sometimes wonder how each of their lives would have personally been different if Japan had won the war.
They determined that the human race could not be represented by a system encouraging that sort of horror. America’s involvement changed the outcome of the war. The Allies probably would have won the war, eventually, at least in Europe. But the real result, the remaking of the international system, came because of the decisive victory. Further, Japan would not have towered from the Pacific, standing as a fortress of democracy throughout the Cold War as it did. Here is a topic for someone’s graduate dissertation: compare the financial results of the two potential outcomes from the Japanese perspective. How much greater was the wealth Japan developed through post-war capitalism than what they would have amassed through continuation of a mercantilist empire that could have plundered the resources of northern China
and Southeast Asia?25
Even without U.S. involvement, Japan most likely would have continued to struggle in the war to conquer China. They were already losing against U.S.-supported Nationalists; if the tide had not already turned, Mao’s army may have began fighting the Japanese (which never happened, contrary to Red propaganda. Also, please refer to the earlier post (footnote 6) about Japan bouncing back. By 1965, Japan’s economy was quadruple what it had been before the war.
Life is Beautiful
From these examples, the thesis of the book should ring true with you, dear reader. Marvelous, unthinkable benefits result from terrible situations. These examples are just a few of thousands that could have been highlighted. But the really big question remains. Are these stories unique? Or do tragic destructions always bring new, even more glorious structures? Are these examples exceptions, or can this theory be relied on as a model to explain every bad day? The answer is yes, yes, and yes. In many cases, the Heavens or the Fates seem to provide the wonderful new reality. But often a group, and often an individual, must provide the answer by
a heroic effort. Unfortunately, however, people sometimes don't rise to the occasion. So the answer is: not always. ◆ ◆ ◆ Throughout history, Jews have been treated with horrible unfairness. Johnson’s History of the Jews is a story of almost nonstop horror, interspersed with incidences where Jews created modernity through the arts and sciences. This author read about thousands of years of Jewish history, but quit reading near the end of the book because he became utterly depressed by the account of the Holocaust. Continuing the book was too burdensome. Fortuitous Misfortune Philosophy struggles more on this topic than on perhaps any other. Trying to say that the glass is half full here is extremely difficult. It is a large glass of poison. The Holocaust is a hole in the collective heart of the human race. So we struggled, and we struggled some more, and here is what we get out of it.
The history of Europe is the history of oppression of some the society’s biggest contributors, the people who were key to creating the rich culture and some the basic institutions. Persecuting Jews was common, and somehow people justified it in their minds. But guilt over the Holocaust was hefty. The scale of horror was so huge, that after the Holocaust we finally decided to act. Nations allied to finally establish a homeland for the Jews. Modern Israel is not yet a peaceful land flowing with milk and honey. Many people, including some Jews, are not thrilled with the effort. The whole region is absolutely far from tranquil. And the situation may not improve for generations. But a first step has been made in the expedition to repair the state of affairs. We can all pray that conditions in the region will improve before many more generations have passed. suggested reading: A History of the Jews, by Paul Johnson (ISBN number 0060915331)
Longships and Legos
Throughout the ninth and tenth century, Viking armies swept across Europe, their fierceness and courage conquering large sections of the continent. Sighting the peculiar Viking boats nearing the coast brought terror to the inhabitants of any land. Today we cannot appreciate the feelings of helplessness and dread these sightings must have inspired. A fleet of ships would appear on the horizon, each ship holding about 60 warriors. In one hand a shield, and in the other hand a spear, sword, or axe, these armies seemed unstoppable as they
overran Europe. The Vikings left a major impression everywhere they went. Just the geographic breadth is awesome: Viking traders are believed to have reached as far as Baghdad. The region they eventually controlled included the Normandy region in France and a large section of England called Danelaw. Then these ferocious armies would conquer an area, then seemed to immediately become farmers on the land they had subjugated. They adopted many practices of the locals, and the locals adopted from the Vikings elements of their language, military practices, and customs. The whole experience eventually remade Western Civilization. The horror of conquest paved the way for things we appreciate now. First, Western Europe adopted a common religion and culture, gradually merging the best practices of Scandinavia and Western Europe. They combined heritages, strengthening the
whole cloth. Secondly, genetic diversity improved. The mixing of the genes has produced the beautiful races of today’s Europe. At least that is the way we see it, here at Fortuitous Misfortune headquarters. The remarkable Western world of today truly has much for which to thank the Viking warriors. Other imports include place names, some local parliaments, and transportation technology (the innovation that allows us to sail against the wind.) Of interesting note is that conscientious objectors who remained at home in kept quite busy. From that gene pool came true genius. They now sell plastic toy locking blocks throughout the world for far more than they are worth. And lots of cell phones. Again, the Manifesto of Fortuitous Misfortune states that negative turns of circumstance, sad twists of fate, and corruptions of plans redeem our lives.
But we certainly don’t encourage them.
Fortuitous Misfortune Philosophy holds tenaciously to the belief that America’s formation was a marvelous thing. Representative democracy would not exist in many parts of the world where it now does, were it not for the applause, and sometimes the helping hand, of the United States. In some cases the support has been misguided. Often it has been overly assertive. But by endeavoring to support good, the U.S. has fulfilled the original mission of acting as a “city set on a hill,” a role that the first settlers envisioned for the country. But this good fortune for the world came through a lot of misfortune. The mortality rates among emigrants over the water were outrageous. And those voyagers who survived were
likely to die within the first year of arriving. Moving to America would have seemed like an insupportable idea, if the first settlers had not felt such a strong sense of mission. Then after all that England invested in the colonies, both financially and in human life, the colonial residents rebelled and seceded. The process of trying to avoid the secession was very costly. Every American has heard the stories of suffering, such as Continental soldiers leaving bloody footprints in the snow because they had no shoes in winter, but even the well-fed English soldiers suffered from disease and privation as they fought through frightening primeval wilderness. Further, the burden on English taxpayers was immense, and that eventually brought calls to end the war. So the English suffered and invested tremendously to create the settlements, then sacrificed to save the colonies, then lost them. In the beginning of the conflict, politicians and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic used the symbolism of a child rebelling against a parent, and indeed it seemed that the foolish child
was running away from home to end up destitute and homeless as runaways usually do. The English monarchy was very disappointed, in the end only consoled by saying something to the effect that “who wants them around anyway.” From the standpoint of the colonial residents, rebellion made little sense at the time. They were the wealthiest per capita people on earth, according to David McCullough (a rock star in the area of historical research.) They should have continued to enjoy the benefits of imperial membership. Indeed, the separation should have been a huge loss for them as well. But the result of independence was a long-term increase in power for the new country. If America had stayed dependent, it would have remained small and fragile. Instead they became a formidable support in the twentieth century. In their ascendancy, they were immeasurably more useful to England during two world wars than Australia or New Zealand ever could have been. India, with a population vastly larger than that of the U.S., was not the major factor in winning the Second World War. The U.S., then a grown up child, was the decisive factor.
So the colonists’ failure to create better dialogue with Parliament was a boon for both sides. Various readers of this work might at this moment be in the midst of personal financial devastation, divorce, or degenerative illness. Some might be suffering from a severe handicap, or other legal trouble. But just as the bloody feet of Continental soldiers and the empty coffers of Parliament became the source of America’s liberty and later were the emergency first aid kit for England’s liberties, so will better personal lives be bought for us by the price of some calamity. Perhaps your current suffering, dear reader, is leading you to a better tomorrow than you could have ever imagined. suggested reading: 1776, by David McCulloch (ISBN number 0743226720)
Jonathon Browning’s life was good. An acquaintance of young lawyer Abraham Lincoln, Browning was elected as Justice of the Peace in one of the largest cities in Illinois. Quincy, on the Mississippi River, was growing and increasingly prosperous, and was a rare model of tolerance in the pre-Civil War era. Jonathon’s star was rising. During this time, true to conviction, residents of Quincy stepped in to rescue starving and freezing Mormons from gross violence and oppression across the river in Missouri. Many Quincy residents today are proud of the fact that their ancestors were the good guys.
Browning was impressed with the dedication of the refugees he met. He listened to their stories and, unfortunately for his career, his heart felt something that made him want to become a Mormon. He was ostracized from his friends and acquaintances, ending a promising career in politics. Browning moved to the Mormon refuge 50 miles upriver in Nauvoo, Illinois. So he returned to his former trade as a gunsmith. It was something he knew how to do well, and his business prospered. But Nauvoo’s setting made it a natural stop for riverboats, so dock business began suffering in nearby Warsaw, Illinois, and those townspeople became angry. The peaceful era ended. Eventually the Nauvoo residents engendered jealousy from nearby towns, as skilled English immigrants in Nauvoo created more competitive pressure. So Mormons again became refugees four years later. Browning was able to supply rifles badly needed for the refugees crossing the dangerous frontier. Browning opened a firearms repair shop in Ogden,
Utah, which is near the site where the transcontinental railroad joined. His son, John Moses Browning, joined him and became a gunsmith. John Moses registered 128 gun-related patents, and was key to development of automatic and semi-automatic firearm technology. He designed guns for his own company and for five others including Winchester, Colt, and Remington, and most remains one of the most important contributors to the firearm26 industry worldwide. Most of his designs are still being manufactured with little change. Machine gun technology has accomplished evil, but has also protected democracy and public safety for many decades. For this we can thank Browning for sacrificing a career in local politics. ◆ ◆ ◆ Unconvinced by the logic chain of this happy ending? Another example of religious
A pistol of Browning’s design was used to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand, ignited the First World War.
persecution pertinent to our motto is the story of French-born scientist Denis Papin. Persecution from Louis XIV drove him and fellow Huguenots to Germany. While there, Papin was exposed to more new technology and was able to combine it with his own knowledge. He worked with Germans such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (noted for many advances, including invention of the binary system used by computers today) and together they invented a steam engine. This technology, developed by contributions of several inventors, made possible our modern industrialized world. So perhaps we can thank the King of France for his bigotry (oh, and while we’re on the topic, also thank him for building the Palace of Versailles.) Switzerland can also thank the French regime for their intolerance, because the Huguenot refugees created Switzerland’s watch industry, which spurred a cute little cheese-making country into the global economic powerhouse it is today. And we could argue that persecution of Christians in the early centuries strengthened and galvanized the new sect. Milder tormenting from the Roman Empire might have resulted in a less compelling religion than the one that has revolutionized the way our planet thinks.
suggested reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Browning http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Papin
The writer Jules Feiffer autobiographically wrote “you cannot be a successful boy in America if you cannot throw or catch a ball.” Our next example proves that an unsuccessful boy can still become a successful adult in the long run. Stephen was a good boy and did well in school. What he really loved was playing football. While young, he mapped out his lifetime sports career. But that career ended early, when leg surgery required steel pins to be placed in his legs. The high school student spent three years on crutches. Sports career over. Bad luck.
But Stephen was apparently a believer in Fortuitous Misfortune, so instead of wallowing in self-pity, he took those lemons and made lemonade. He began focusing on academics, and eventually excelled, especially at public speaking. Stephen peaked out at five feet and seven inches, so probably would not have led any team to a Super Bowl championship. But re-directing his efforts towards academics did pay off. He entered university at age 16, and eventually earned a doctorate degree after graduating from Harvard Business School. He started an education-related company, which after merging with another company, was eventually worth $500 million. That is definitely a success story. But many, many times greater than the company’s market capitalization is the value he created in the individual lives of millions of people. Stephen Covey develops people, makes them more productive and happy. Multitudes of people all around the world, from various walks of life, claim Covey’s teachings have fundamentally transformed their lives for the better. Countless
companies have also become more productive by following those teachings. Not bad for a kid who couldn’t make the team.
The forgoing story shows that LACK of athletic prowess is necessary to change the world. But that is not really so, because athletic skill can, in fact, make someone successful enough to change the world. About a century ago, Leroy was a wayward boy. An African-American growing up in Mobile, Alabama, he lived near the bottom of a very hierarchical society. He showed ingenuity early in life: in his job toting luggage at the train station, he hooked up a pole and rope to help him carry twice as many bags and earn more money. Clearly he had potential to succeed. But success was not to be. Leroy had developed a criminal pattern, being caught for theft and
truancy. Then, before he had even turned 12 years old, he was arrested for shoplifting. He was sentenced to remain in the Industrial School for Negro Children (in Mount Meigs, Alabama) until he was age 18. The outlook for his life was not good, especially in that era, decades before the civil rights movement. He was destined to be a statistic. Those must have been difficult years for Leroy Paige. But while at the reform school, he had opportunity for, and developed an interest in, baseball. He was taught to pitch, and began to develop surprising skill. His behavior also improved. He was released from the reformatory six months early, and began playing for local baseball teams. During that time he was “discovered,” and recruiters brought him to play in the Negro Leagues. He moved from team to team, gradually distinguishing himself. Leroy Paige, who since his luggage-toting boyhood had been nicknamed Satchel, played a long career.
Paige worked hard to open up the major leagues to black players. He talked about the idea. He traveled around barnstorming with eminent white players. He worked hard to gain publicity for himself and other African-American players. Eventually America noticed. Satchel Paige’s teammate, Jackie Robinson, was the one ultimately recruited to be the first black player in the major leagues. This was likely because he had a more even temperament than Paige. But Satchel Paige, one of the greatest baseball players in history, was a trailblazer for integration and for the game of baseball itself. If he had been a good boy and stayed out of trouble, he may have never mastered baseball. He may have risen to become a luggage tote senior supervisor at some railroad station. Without the reform school, no baseball. And without baseball, no special racial diplomacy opportunity. Without Leroy having that opportunity during the early period, integration of baseball, and perhaps of society, might have been delayed. Fortuitous Misfortune philosophy does not advocate shoplifting, but does advocate turning bad
starts into astounding finishes, because it makes people happier. It sometimes changes the world.
Gratitude for Universal Suppression
Censorship leads to intellectual stagnation. Ideas need a free marketplace in which to be tested. Societies that suppress ideas eventually atrophy. This is a belief that has become an article of faith in the Western world. So we would probably agree that if censorship were imposed throughout the Western world, that would be a bad thing. But in at least one case, it was a good thing. The weather in Paris, France, must have still been cool on March 7th, 1277. And Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, may have been in a grouchy mood after the winter, as many of us are
at that time of year. In the thirteenth century, the University of Paris was Europe’s most prominent theological school. At the university, faculty became concerned that European professors were too often giving Aristotle preference over the Bible when a theological dispute arose. Bishop Tempier investigated, and with a commission of faculty members, issued the Condemnation of 1277. The 219 statements addressed various issues of heresy, including the teaching of Aristotle. Bad news for Aristotle fans, who probably did not wish to be excommunicated. And bad news for academic freedom. Or maybe not. Aristotle’s teachings, beneficial as they may have seemed, emphasized deductive reasoning over empirical research. Glenn Sunshine describes a benefit of the new rules: The Condemnations of 1277 were a major watershed
for medieval thought. Although condemning ideas would seem to restrict freedom of thought and therefore intellectual development, in the Middle Ages they actually liberated thinking from its slavish dependence on Aristotle.27 Aristotle’s preference for logic over experiment had produced many beliefs we would not agree with now, such as the ideas that women were inferior to men and that slavery was natural and unavoidable. Contrary to the assumptions of classical thinkers (including Aristotle), the best method of learning about the world was not deductive reasoning but direct study and examination of the world. The importance of this shift is hard to overstate, since it laid the foundation for the tremendous success of Western science in later centuries.28
Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home, Glenn S. Sunshine, p. 68 ibid, p. 70
From the new edict arose the scientific method. Until that time, innovation had come from Asia or the Islamic realm. But over the following centuries, Europe began to surpass the rest of the world, and during the centuries since then, created the foundations of science upon which our world is built. The good news is not that the rest of the world became inferior, but that the scientific method became supreme. The power of this worldview created a rising tide that has lifted all ships throughout the world. Consider automobiles, medication, air travel, cell phones, flush toilets, microwave ovens, transistors, lava lamps. Consider all of the scientific discoveries during the past 750 years (or in other words, practically everything besides agriculture and gunpowder and written language29). Then, express sincere gratitude for the suppression past ages. Express gratitude for Bishop Tempier.
Crucial comment: history’s most important invention, curry, obviously comes from Asia.
The Progress of Fungus
Scientific discovery has come in many ways, but many fields require controlled experiments in laboratories. The laboratories must be clean, or the experiment will fail. A lot of time and energy will be wasted. Opportunities might be missed. In a story you have probably heard, a certain researcher couldn’t keep his laboratory clean, which unfortunately ruined his experiment. But, as we know by now, regrettable situations change the world.
When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer, Fleming would later say, but I guess that was exactly what I did.30 And so Dr. Fleming’s crucial day began. He returned from vacation to find that one of his bacteria trays contaminated with fungus. That fungus seemed to eat bad bacteria. He eventually called this mold “penicillin,” and thus was born the field of antibiotics. At that point he was already known as a brilliant researcher, but the discovery that changed the world was an unfortunate accident. (An interesting note is that Fleming also warned about creating resistance to antibiotics by using too little, something about which people still need to be reminded.) More important to note is that all this was done when Fleming’s age was 47, far past when most scientists make world-changing discoveries. That is very good news for all of us aged over 40.
The impact has been tremendous. Infections that killed people are now manageable. The world is a far less frightening place because of Sir Alexander Fleming’s error. In the same way, the world will continue to be saved from other cataclysms by accidental discoveries. Fleming could not have immediately appreciated the full impact of his discovery. Often it is so with us. Some technology that will save our world is surely being invented or will soon become available.31
Even now, we are developing miniature nuclear power plants31 that will not only replace coal-fired plants, but will operate water purification facilities. If they are not the solution, then another technology soon will be. See http://www.hyperionpowergeneration.com/
If a favorite family dog dies, the family is sad. But after the dog is buried, it becomes fertilizer. From the site grows a beautiful tree that brings enjoyment to the family. That is our allegory to explain the philosophy of Fortuitous Misfortune. It doesn’t bring back the beloved pet, but the resulting tree is a wonderful consolation. In some cases the tree brings more joy than the dog did. Let's review our situation. The public debt situation in some countries is probably impossible to solve, and conditions continue to deteriorate. Peace in the Mideast does not really seem possible, and volatility is at best not improving. The Maldives, a true paradise, may be
completely submerged in a generation. The number and scale of devastating natural disasters seems to be increasing. Vice is becoming accepted. World food shortages will probably grow unless we can continue to construct even more bizarre genetic structures for grain. In fact, the number of starving people, and the number of obese people, are simultaneously increasing. Plague, pestilence, wars…and personal disappointment: we have much for which to be grateful. Desolating scourge, catastrophe, and delinquency make our world such a wonderful place. That is the heritage of the human race. We will continue to face extinction, and from each calamity we will either be miraculously rescued, or we will miraculously create a way to solve the problem, and either solution will be the means of completely re-creating our world for the better. No politician, business leader, or media icon can offer us hope. But something greater should give us hope. The whole pattern and scheme, the whole chronicle of human experience, the whole tried and tested system of Fortuitous Misfortune stands before us, giving confidence that
we will be delivered.
So that brings us to the second part of this book. We can produce more stories—many more—but the point has been made. Now it is time to ask: what are you going to do about it? In more detail, here is the relevant question to ask yourself: What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you? The absolute WORST thing. Have you experienced, for example, any of the following difficulties? death of a loved one extended period of unemployment parents’ divorce own divorce period of unemployment sexual abuse bankruptcy
natural disaster loss of reputation through another’s sabotage infidelity of a spouse your own infidelity failing a crucial exam losing a championship sports match failing in a career-development endeavor having your childhood dreams crushed forever by a well-meaning teacher inadvertently crushing a child’s dreams forever possessing a physical deformity being bullied by one’s boss suddenly slowed internet speed when speed is vital for a potential career-enhancing moment destruction of one’s home through fire or flooding power outage that provokes widespread panic economic depression
emotional depression extra-late Spring when suffering from seasonal affective disorder famine losing one’s retirement savings in a bad investment missing the opportunity of a lifetime victimization by embezzlement/theft victimization by violent crime disappointment in love being victimized by identity theft disability suicide of a loved one frozen water pipes in the middle of the winter surprise audit from the internal revenue service being sued wanting children but being infertile multi-year pattern of uncomfortable confrontations with an aggressive neighbor
being kidnapped by separatist rebels long-term debilitating gastrointestinal turbulence memory of trauma from compensating for an alcoholic parent personal mental illness humiliation in junior high/middle school
The next question: What wonderfulness has that trauma produced for you? This question doesn’t require an immediate response. This might take weeks or months of introspection to determine. But after protracted effort, are you still unable to answer that question? Why? Here are some examples to get you started. Your reputation is sabotaged Sometimes bad publicity is better than no publicity. Getting noticed, even for
negative reasons, can be ultimately beneficial. Bad buzz is better than no buzz. You are fired from your job Being fired or being laid off can create a needed change. Many people never succeed to the degree that they should because they subconsciously fear success. If they succeed, they fear they will become selfish, or proud, or money grubbing, or develop some other trait they fear. Sometimes being ejected from a job forces you off the sofa and causes you to move forward with your life.
The purpose of this book is not to help you feel good about the tragedies of history. Nothing was shared here to make you say “gee whiz.” The intent is to change your life. This is the part where you reach deep down inside yourself, find the answer, and learn to keep doing it until finding those answers becomes easier.
Now the next step: recreate your life.
You can’t build sizable biceps by reading Muscle & Fitness magazine, even though that is probably the most common method of exercising muscles. So when you experience a bad day, imagine what wonderful result might be brewing in the cauldron of your suffering. When tragedy strikes, what is your first reaction? Our DNA prefers that we react with anger or fear. Our ancestors, for thousands of years, feared wolves, and we often mistake a humiliating experience for a wolf attack. Tragedy always brings your life into a scenario different than the one you had planned. That is why it is a tragedy. You may have planned a long, happy life with your spouse, and you may have even made some specific travel plans with him or her, post-retirement. Then, bam! Your spouse dies or you are suddenly divorced. Your life becomes completely different from the one you had planned.
People tie themselves to a future scenario, then become distraught when fate replaces it with another scenario. In some cases it could be a tiny catastrophe, but still a catastrophe because it is different from our plans.
A New Mindset
The Success Propaganda industry has, for the past seven decades, preached many different things. Over the years many different paths to success have been taught (though many systems
are often repeated with only new vocabulary collections.) But they seem unified on one thing: you can choose your own destiny. Through a better goal-setting system, or a better execution and follow up program, or through visioning intently, or by calling upon the gods of the ancient world, or by attracting positive energy, we control the outcome. We set a goal, focus our will upon it, set a plan, then work hard. It helps if we first “discover our passion.” Then we reach the goal. Those programs are nice and they have their place. But they ignore the possibility of the unexpected. And, as we’ve discussed, the unexpected might be a lot better than your “passion.” Our ancestors believed that fate ruled their lives. The stars, or the heavens, or birth year, or the “invisible red thread” controlled their destinies. Not so for us. The “my will be done” philosophy has ruled our day. Until now. Could it be that, separately, neither fate nor self-determination holds the secret of
life? That is the contention of this book. What of Columbus and his failure to discover a new route to Asia? If he had succeeded, he would have merely discovered a more efficient way for Europe to procure spices or silk. He failed, and discovered a new hemisphere. If for no other reason, the introduction of corn and potatoes into the societies of the East made his efforts valuable. And what about the examples we’ve discussed so far? They are a pattern for our world and for your life to be happier. ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
We insert here a caveat. We cannot look at a particular tragedy and say, “great, that will inevitably lead to X.” Creating that sort of formula would be asking too much of us here at Fortuitous Misfortune headquarters. Even if we tried, we would probably be wrong.
Your task is not to predict a result, but to develop the analytical skills necessary to map positive results after the tragedy. This author is sometimes fearful, but overall I am optimistic about the future. Giant miracles have always saved the world. It will always be so. Our race will always be rescued from miracles, at the moment we need them. And miracles will save you. ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
Here is one last example. Much of the Fortuitous Misfortune in human history, as cited in previous examples, comes from individual deaths. We can call those people martyrs or heroes, even if they died unwillingly.
But if we think that quick deaths are always better than prolonged, anguishing deaths, we would be wrong. “When I die, I want to go quickly, not hanging on and suffering,” I have heard many people say. But the experience of history proves that this type of hope ignores important truths. Difficult, painful deaths have a purpose. One reason many people are opposed to euthanasia is that suffering has an ultimate, personal purpose that the sufferer cannot understand nor predict. Such is the case with 20-year-old Penelope Van Princis, who traveled from her home in the Netherlands to New Amsterdam (New York) in 1642. Her husband became quite ill on the voyage. Then the ship crashed and sunk off of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Two strikes against the couple, and they had not even arrived. But the story quickly deteriorated even further. The crew helped the couple to shore, then immediately abandoned them on the beach. The crew decided to quickly hike to safety because of the threat of attack from natives. They didn’t want to be slowed by sick stragglers.
They may have been cowards, but they were foresightful cowards. After the crew departed, a band of locals attacked the couple as they huddled on the shore. Her husband was killed, his suffering ended. Penelope was disemboweled and considerably torn up by tomahawk violence. She was abandoned again, this time for dead. At that point, she must have wished she were dead. After seven long days of living in a hollow log, holding her bowels to keep them from falling out, her death wish was to be granted as more Indians approached her beach camp to finish her off. Penelope crawled out of the log and threw herself onto the trail. But Tisquantum, the older of the two men, stopped his companion’s lifted tomahawk and insisted they take the woman home. He flung her almost-corpse over his shoulder and carried her to his camp. Tisquantum gradually restored her to health, and two years later Penelope married an Englishman named Richard Stout. Of interesting note is the fact that Tisquantum saved Penelope’s life again later by warning her of an imminent attack on her settlement.
By the time Penelope died, at age 110, she had 502 descendents. Her descendents must now total in the hundreds of thousands. Some of them may have been instrumental in building the nation they called home. If Penelope had died on the beach instead of suffering for an excruciating week, none of those descendents, including this author, would have been born to thank her for her courage. I owe my existence to Fortuitous Misfortune. So, what can we learn from Penelope’s ordeal? First, the point in your life at which you die is none of your business. You shouldn’t take part in the decision. The second lesson is that life is much larger than we can imagine. Middle age is now defined as 60 years old. Many people live productive lives well past 90 years old. So if you feel like you are “falling behind” your peer group, if you think your classmates from school are still whispering about your failures, stop comparing yourself to them. Stop thinking about them at all. You have so much to see and do on that road in front of you. Enjoy the twists and turns.
You can only see a short distance ahead, but keep moving. Third lesson: the person who seems to be your enemy might actually save your life, your career, or your honor. That metaphorical tomahawk could end your suffering, or it could cut a path to a new life. So trust people occasionally and stay open to new possibilities. One last caveat: be patient. Patience is not the most popular virtue of our day. Stories of over-night billionaires have left us jaded, so we don’t want to invest the effort it takes to build a company of long-term value, for example. But this approach takes a lot more patience than does a new time management system or goal program. When I was young, my mentor told me, “you can’t judge today and say you had a good day or a bad day. The result will come in the future, at which time you can look back and rightfully say if it was good or bad. If you commit a heinous crime, then you can say ‘today I had a bad
day.’ But otherwise, stop judging.”
Is This Intended For You?
Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man The message of Fortuitous Misfortune is for everyone, because misfortune is common to us all.
You may know someone whose life has been one of continual ease and good fortune. You never want to invite these people to your dinner parties, because they really are insufferable. But just wait. Their turns will come. Misfortune will eventually be the vehicle for transforming their lives, for their own good or for the good of others. Or both. Just like their ancestors, just like you. We are all connected, and our life missions are all connected. The Mongol warriors and the Samurai, Ottoman conquerors and Greek scholars, the internet tycoons and dot-com burnouts, the slaves and statesmen, and the carpet-bombing victims. We're all tied together.
Nietsche said what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. The corollary is obvious but rarely verbalized: some things will kill you. Our ancestors lived with real threats. Wild animals, marauding bands that raped and pillaged, and natural disasters that could not be understood—much less adequately prepared for—made people afraid. But that fear kept them alive. Unfortunately, we have inherited the same fear responses for dangers that are no longer imminent in daily life. So we apply those responses to public speaking (people will heckle and taunt and I will become unemployable and die of starvation), weight gain (I will never have
companionship, so I will not have offspring to care for me in my old age), and potentially embarrassing situations (I will be ostracized by the tribe and left alone to defend myself against bears and wolves). Inappropriate fear response is called anxiety. A co-worker questions our calculations, and we become defensive. The thought that a co-worker MIGHT question you leads to fear that we will lose all credibility, leading to job loss, then to homelessness, then to death from eating rotten food out of a trash dumpster. Regarding your current personal challenge, what is the WORST thing that can result from this? Seriously, what is the worst thing that can REALISTICALLY happen? In light of the concept of Fortuitous Misfortune, is that result such a bad thing? If you can change your mindset to believe in this philosophy, you can significantly alleviate anxiety, one of the most serious and widespread ailments in modern society. In the quirky but profound comedy Joe vs. the Volcano, Tom Hanks tells the depressed character played by Meg Ryan:
"If you have a choice between killing yourself and doing something you're scared of doing, why not take the leap and do the thing you're scared of doing?" When she admits her specific fear, he responds: "You know what you're afraid of doing. Why don't you do it? See what happens?" The movie changes to a new scene that doesn’t include her, so we are left hoping that the character takes the leap and does what she is afraid of doing. You can do this. Please forgive another experience close to my home: Twelve years ago, a woman in a large Asian city had a miserable life. She apparently had some
emotional problems so seemed to never tire of giving birth out of wedlock. She was unwilling to learn from the long string of tragedies in her life. Either drug abuse or trauma caused significant neurotic behavior. But her erratic lifestyle produced one thing that has changed my life: a beautiful baby girl. She entered our home and became our daughter through adoption. I don't know if this woman is even alive today. But I believe that she will someday be rewarded for bringing incredible joy into our lives. I pray that the songs that come from our daughter's violin will someday reach the ears of this good woman and help her feel happy about the sacrifices she made for us. Five years ago, I published a book (never translated into English) about our experience with this little girl of ours. I have not even fully divulged the whole story to our daughter. But I share the story with you, because it follows the same pattern as the others: an event or occurrence is so horrible that the person experiencing it believes he or she can never recover.
But the tragedy brings about an incredible prize for the person or for someone else. In this case, my wife and I were the beneficiaries. I picture this woman sitting in her dingy apartment, afraid her life will not recover from yet another pregnancy. She is anxious. I see her haunted face as she contemplates suicide. Something, I’m not sure what, stopped her from taking that solution. What is certain is that she was NOT wondering how she could help some white guy across the ocean. And neither can you, as you wallow in grief, imagine which of 500,000 possible marvelous outcomes will arise from your pain. No one can. Life is far too complex. But you CAN believe that betterment will come. That is one of my stories. And now it is your story. We are all connected, so each story of redemption becomes part of our collective experience. Your story of tragedy, and redemption—if you have reached that stage—is my story also.
Everyone has a story to tell. So we recommend that you listen more. Connect more. Then our shared experience will become stronger.
The Next Generation
People are afraid that our children will have to suffer the same difficulty they did. So they shelter the children from difficulty, but that creates a much bigger difficulty. It stunts them and prevents them from reaching their full potential. Europeans, interestingly, the people whose ancestors suffered Black Death, the Inquisition, the 100 Years War, and the Final Solution, don’t spoil their children nearly as much as Americans or Japanese do. Perhaps they realize that hardship and misfortune—as we have been discussing—helps young people to realize their potential better than treating self-esteem as something so fragile it must be cuddled and shielded from discomfort.
Tell kids to keep a stiff upper lip and learn from grief, not to run from it.
Why is this a book?
The purpose here, as stated before, is to change the world. The goal is to promulgate Fortuitous Misfortune Philosophy. The best way to accomplish this is as a short book. Here is a relevant quote from a blog post by marketing rock star Seth Godin: Out of context, a 140 character tweet cannot change someone's life. A blog post might (I can think of a few that changed the way I think about business and even life). A movie can, but most big movies are inane entertainments designed to make a lot of money, not change people. But books?….Books change lives every day. A book takes more than a few minutes to read. A book envelopes us, it is relentless in its voice and in
its linearity. You start at the beginning and you either ride with the author to the end or you bail. And unlike just about any form of electronic media, you get to read the book at your own pace, absorbing it as you go. The goal of this book is to change the world. To change you. But my contribution is only part of the effort. My sincere hope is that this short book will contain information for you that I did not write. Parts of the book are broad brush strokes, and other parts are slightly more granular investigations. But the purpose is the same. The book’s hope is that the Glass-Half-Full Outlook will be not just a silly affirmation, but that it will create a shift, and become the very means of taking our world to a new level. Keep Reading!
The List is Incomplete
In times of discouragement, anyone can be benefited by reading the examples of redemption from the past. So please share with us your stories or other examples of which you are aware. Please e-mail me at email@example.com.
Q. I found an error in reporting on one event. How can you call yourself a historian? A. The author calls himself a philosopher who enjoys history. Q. Why does the author always refer to himself in third person? Is he some sort of egomaniac? A. The author randomly chose a grammatical style and had to stick with it, but doesn’t even stick to that style very well. In Volume II, maybe he may exclusively use fourth person. Q. Why doesn’t this book use standard footnote and other documenting procedures? A. The original plan was to laboriously use 3X5 cards to write up each quote. But now the
World Wide Web has been invented (hopefully you received the memo about that). Readers can access most of the information on line. Q. Is the author a bigot who thinks the Holocaust was a happy event? A. The author thinks the Holocaust is the most tragic event in modern history, but also believes that some good can always come from bad. Try thinking that way. It makes you happier. Q. Does the author hate Japanese people? A. Some of the author’s favorite people are Japanese, including family members. He is in fact saddened that a lot of people instantly died at Hiroshima and at Nagasaki, because it is one of the most unfortunate events in history. Q. Why did you choose the stories you did, instead of others that would have been quite good? A. We tried to include a variety, from business, warfare, religion, philosophy, etc. If you have better ideas, please contact us at the Center for Fortuitous Misfortune.
Q. Why is this book so short? A. The book is long enough to prove the hypothesis, but short enough to not try the readers’ patience. The book allows the reader space to begin trying this practice individually, to look for good in the bad. Q. Can you stand by the proposition that in every single occurrence, some good result always springs from tragedy? A. Yes. And finding that good in each instance is your job, dear reader.
The examples in this book are sufficient to prove the point that the glass will always be half full. Some examples we could have used but didn’t are included here as an appendix. The Great Wall of China The cost of building the Great Wall must be greater than the cost of any other construction project in history, and is in fact several projects combined into a single concept. And it was almost absolutely useless. It never really stopped any invaders. It was considered useless for centuries, and locals were not particularly interested in it. It
became suddenly popular only when it began providing employment for the local tourism industry. Was it a failure? Mr. Wang, whom I met as he was selling bottled water to thirsty tourists hiking the wall, doesn’t believe so. Pickett’s Charge The toll in human life from Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg was tremendous. Regardless of the macro impact, humans killing other humans, especially in large numbers, is always a bad idea. Union armies had experienced similar tragedies, but the South couldn’t afford the loss. The tide of war was irreversibly shifted within a few minutes. William Faulkner, in Intruder in the Dust, describes the continuing impact: For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods
and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago. The Southern way of life ended. The concept of States’ rights very regrettably ended. But, thankfully, slavery ended.
Discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls In an unfortunate accident, a young shepherd boy in the Middle East got lost. Sheltering in a cave, he accidentally found some scrolls that changed our understanding of the ancient world. The lesson: when traveling, don’t be afraid to make a wrong turn, or change course, or even to get lost and wander for a while. You might find something more fun than what you had planned. The Crusades The Crusades are one of the most heavily-criticized events in history. Two civilizations fighting for power has been used as a premier example to defame religion in general. Further, the crusaders did not accomplish much in the long run, because the lands that were taken back from the Islamic world eventually returned to Islam. But on the individual level, the result was different. The experience opened up the eyes of two
generations of Europeans to the outside world. Thousands of young men left their villages and broadened their horizons. Returning home, they brought to the West ideas and things they couldn’t otherwise imagine, including spices and fine steel. This may not justify the cost. But surely good did arise from the event.
Longing for Apocalypse
I recently perused a body of research which indicates that people who look forward to the end of the world are those who feel unhappy in the current world. The End will not crush them, but will turn the tables. It will put them on top. "I might be a failure now, but you won't be laughing at me then." History does not uphold the idea that huge upheavals bring the bottom people to the top. Some mixing up does occur, some people are brought low, but rarely is anyone switched to the top
spot in the new order, simply because they were at the bottom before. The current recession will probably get worse before it gets better. And natural disasters will probably increase in frequency, continuing the trend. But hoping for despair is a gamble of the worst kind. Punishing yourself further now, in the hopes that you will be chosen as a leader in the post-Apocalypse, is a scenario requiring such incredible odds that you should not ever consider it. Instead, gamble that the world will get better eventually. And don't let anyone take advantage of your despair-wish.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.