People who buy lottery tickets are probably romantic dreamers, perhaps like the Argentine strategists who thought it would be nice to win the Falkland Islands, and with this kind of temperament it makes no difference whether you win or lose because the dream (while it lasts) appears to be the reward.
And there are many people whose experience thus far has shown them life is a dismal grind not likely to change, so the prospect of winning big is attractive, and never mind the odds.
Whether it's wise for the state to sponsor lotteries is a vexed question, but since I never bought a lottery ticket in my life, and since nobody forces the ticket buyers to throw money away, a buck for a dream may not be too much.
One good thing about lotteries is that there you can take part or not, as you please, and more or less know what you're doing. You can buy a ticket this week and not buy one next week, and for romantic temperaments this must be very nice, and must give a sensation that you are the master. At least, if you get mad at the lottery you can stop playing. In this it differs somewhat from life, in which you play. Period.
But there are people, I meet them all the time, who do not think life is a lottery at all, but who believe that by taking thought they can order all things well from cradle to grave, and when they feel they are successful they are insufferable, dropping hints to everybody else that if they just straighten up and fly right, etc., etc. Richard Nixon always gave the impression that if you just worked hard and sold pies as a lad to help your mother (as he did) and went on from there you'd turn out fine. Well heh-heh-heh, buddy.
The truth is that the goddess Fortuna has much -- almost everything, I often think -- to do with how things turn out. Jean Rostand used to say biology is destiny, meaning that if you're born a finch you're not going to save Androcles in the arena, and if you're born a lion you're not going to sing in a tropical tree to the delight of all. And if you're born human, as so many of us are, and have a club foot as Lord Byron did, you're not going to win the Penn Relays no matter how hard you work at it.
Quite apart from the limits set by biology, there are even worse limits set by chance. Byron, at least, could be a writer if not a track star, but it seems obvious enough that people with greater potential than he have never had a word published, as things turned out.
And the remarkable thing is that we waddle right through life, paying careful attention to such certainties as the note being due at the bank on Aug. 28, utterly unaware of the unspeakable glory we just barely missed on Aug. 3, which we knew nothing about, and utterly unaware of the disaster we almost encountered on Aug. 4, but never even knew we had missed.
Archeologists in the old days had no idea of the treasures they lightly pitched out for the dump truck, bent on finding some funerary horde of golden crowns or inlaid ivories. The rest they swept out.
They went to their graves quite pleased with themselves, too, having found the best stone ax in all the Yucatan, say, and unaware the true treasure was the charred grain they ignored in their general tidying up, though the ax might be relatively worthless, just one more nice ax, while the charred grain might have proved the key to unlock the mystery of how grain was developed from weeds, and might have had a strong bearing on how civilization developed in the first place, and on how primitive man (and therefore man) goes about surviving. Grain also goes about surviving, of course, and it is very much in the interest of any grain to make itself as unattractive as possible to humans; and the working out of these competing ends is full of interest. And full of accident.
We like to simplify things to make some kind of sense of the world, though we never know enough even in historical and documented events to know what was truly the crucial fact. Thus it is common for us to assign great importance to the Geospiza finches, say, on those islands off the coast of Ecuador. For by observing them (it is commonly said) Darwin came to his tremendously important insights into the way species evolve.
Which is fine, except that in fact Darwin did not think the finches very interesting, and certainly not important, at the time. It was only later, examining them as preserved skins for a museum, that it dawned on him there were astonishing and mysterious differences in the finches of islands very close to one another. Why were there so many kinds?
It is a case, utterly common in human events, in which something of tremendous importance is overlooked at first, while things of far less importance are made much of.
In Darwin's case, despite the fame of his island finches, it was really plants, not birds, that were the origin of all his views, as he plainly said; but I suppose there are more bird people than plant people.
Most of us make the same mistake Darwin did, of not noticing things of prime interest at the time, but unlike Darwin we lack the wits to examine the preserved skins, so to speak, and learn the lesson later. His genius was to notice what he had not noticed.
If you want to get right down to it, it's only an accident that prevented Darwin from becoming a priest of the Church of England as he had planned originally. He would probably in that case have had the best fantail pigeons in all of Shropshire or something of the kind, since priests then had plenty of time to dabble about learning how things work instead of trotting off to conventions and futzing about with the language of the prayer book.
On this business of accident, you quickly learn there is such a thing as predictability, too. You eat too many lobsters and you'll have trouble with the rent. As a practical matter I am sure it is prudent to assume the sun will come up tomorrow and we should, therefore, bother to go to work today. And no doubt we should pay attention -- even more than we do -- to the statistics of probability.
All the same, it is a bit embarrassing to notice that probability had nothing much to do with an intended vicar turning into a premier scientist of the West, did it? Of course there is the argument that God planned it all and instead of wasting Darwin as a backwater toad, turned him into a prince. That may be true for all I know but if so it is as baffling as mere accident is. I should say I am extraordinarily fond of toads, by the way.
There is a sense in which all the probabilities do indeed come true, which is why they are probabilities in the first place. But there is also the sense in which all the probabilities amount to nothing, and in which accident -- of biology, of driving a car at the age of 16, of getting through school, of getting a job, of getting through hell and out the other side -- is all.
We never really know when we'll be dumped on some miserable island like the Galapagos where there's nothing but some wretched lizards, turtles and quite dull birds, but with luck we get back to the capital where we have real ducks in real restaurants. Giving thanks we escaped those awful cactus-infested, finch-ridden wastelands where nothing was of the slightest interest to anybody.