I Feel Lucky

WHAT’S GOD GOT TO DO WITH IT?

For a long time I’ve been bothered by the difference between the expressions “I’ve been lucky” and “I’ve been blessed”—and also by the similarities between them. Often the phrase “I’ve been blessed” feels true to me, and I have no doubt, as a believer, that it is true. But it can also seem smug and have an implication I don’t like: I was blessed that the tree fell on him, not on me. The arrow hit the fellow next to me—guess he wasn’t so blessed.

At one level the phrases are simply two ways of saying the same thing, but by bringing God into the picture you seem to be claiming more than you have any right to. That’s why I am more comfortable with “lucky” than with “blessed.” My marriage is intact and happy after decades, but I have friends who married good people whose marriages did not survive. When I think of all the boneheaded things I’ve done that could have ended a marriage, or lost friends, or alienated children, I feel more lucky than blessed. It would be arrogant and presumptuous to assume that God’s mantle was over me and not over some of those I know who have not been so—well, lucky.

The difference between saying “I’ve been blessed” and “I’ve been lucky” is that the latter puts an emphasis on the receiving end. “Fortunate” is a substitute for “lucky.” There really isn’t gratitude here, except of a generalized, secular sort. For saying “I’m lucky” is a form of gratitude directed at no one in particular. You are looking at the rest of the landscape and, by coincidence, you shine in it where others do not. I suppose you can say that you are lucky and thank God for it, meaning that you are grateful for something you don’t deserve and have done nothing to earn.

To say that you are blessed emphasizes a relationship with one who can bless and withhold blessing, and the implication is that those who are less fortunate have had fortune withheld. Why me, and not you?

To say “I’ve been blessed” and “I’ve been lucky” might have a loose connection to the Jewish parable in which a person stands before God while having two pieces of paper in his pockets. One paper reads, “The universe was made for me.” The other, “I am dust and ashes.”

This is true of all of us. The problem with “I am blessed” is that it claims we can know from our end how God deals with us. I remember Mother Teresa being asked once why one woman might live a comfortable, middle-class life with a healthy family while another is a widow living in poverty with a suffering child. Mother Teresa answered that God knows the second is strong enough to bear the suffering while the first is not. Both, that is, are blessed, hard as that may be to see.

There is something serious to consider here, but I’m not sure I can accept the idea of God dealing out circumstances that way—God as playwright or film director. I am reminded too much of Bruce Jay Friedman’s dark and funny play Steambath, in which God is a Puerto Rican attendant in a steam bath that serves as a vestibule to whatever the afterlife will be. In asides, the attendant issues a string of commands, calling into being traffic accidents and skin cancer for Doris Day. In any case, Mother Teresa’s words at least suggest we do not necessarily know what a true blessing might be.

In a way this has to do with the sense we have when we feel grateful that, for example, we have inherited a disposition toward good health, good teeth, and athletic ability, and are part of a family that encouraged reading and education—any of those things that we experience with gratitude and appreciation. Not to say, “Thank you, Lord,” would be churlish. But to feel that the blessing is a godly response to anything we are or have done is obscene.

If it is true that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust alike,” then it is also true that God sends his blessings on all, and that all can count on affliction. I suppose we can say that we are blessed in this sense; it is part of our common lot with all humanity, and can in no way be deserved—but this still feels hubristic. I’m more comfortable with feeling lucky, and taking good luck as a random blessing. The best approach is probably that offered by the early desert fathers and mothers. God’s nature is unknowable. We know what God has revealed, they taught, but no more. So, when you have the opportunity to say something, unless you absolutely have to, remain silent. To say that you are lucky is to say the obvious. It is always better not to have that falling anvil hit you. But to say you are blessed is at least irritating and at most offensive.

Published in the 2011-02-25 issue: 

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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