I know that I am wealthy when I consider my lack of misfortune.

March 9, 2008 | By | Reply More

I am a wealthy person, but not in the way most people understand “wealthy.”  I don’t drive an expensive car (I drive a 9-year old Saturn).   I don’t own a vacation house.  I don’t expect to retire for many years. 

I am wealthy because I am a survivor.  I have repeatedly escaped adversity and I’ve repeatedly stumbled into enough lucky situations.   These unplanned events add up to an undeniable and compelling form of wealth.

When most people consider how “fortunate” they are, they engage in some form of “accounting.”  For starters, they add up their savings and they subtract amounts they owe to others.   That gives them a financial base line.  There’s more to figuring wealth, of course.  

Some people consider their health when they assess their wealth.  If their bodies are in tolerable working order, that’s something well worth noting, especially for those over thirty.   Among people discussing age, I often assert that after thirty, “age” is mostly about health rather than chronological age.  Young adults snicker at this (I used to).  But imagine a room full of forty-year olds.  Everyone in the room is about forty, but just look how different they are!  Some of them look and act like they’re 25 and others are functional 75 year olds, often due to obesity, history of injury or illness, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, lack of sleep or various detrimental addictions.  The bottom line is that if you’re body is working even tolerably, that’s a big plus when figuring out your “wealth.”

Some people might want to stir misfortune and lost opportunities into their personal calculus.  They dwell on those big job promotions they didn’t quite get.  They remind themselves that they went to crappy schools and they weren’t able to make the right social connections.  I admit that there are lots of things that keep us from rising higher, socially and financially.   It’s tempting to obsess about those things, but it’s also important to remember that it’s unlikely that those sorts of missed opportunities and misadventures really pulled down one’s general level of happiness.   In short, there’s a poor correlation between money and happiness.

Here’s another source of real wealth you should consider when calculating your fortune:  the lack of bad things and the bucketfuls of near-misses.   For instance, most adult drivers have had dozens of close calls when driving.   Each time that an oncoming car veers over the center line, but then pulls back before striking your car, that made you very rich indeed!   How do I calculate that infusion of wealth?  It’s easy.  If that car actually hit your car, it would have sent you to the hospital, or at least, to the car repair shop.  You would have lost dozens or hundreds of hours and dollars recuperating or fixing the damage.   If you had been struck by that oncoming car and you were laid up in the hospital with a serious injury, what would you be willing to pay to have a magic little elf appear in your room and simply wish away all the pain and frustration, to make you healed and put your life back in order?  Presumably a lot of money.

I’ve lost count of all of the near misses I’ve experienced as a driver.  In 35 years of driving, I’ve only been in two extremely minor accidents (no injuries). In all those years, I’ve also narrowly escaped hitting probably fifty pedestrians (many of them children) who have suddenly jumped in front of my car on busy streets.  Several times each year I need to swerved to avoid bicyclists.  And what about those times your car slides on ice or wet pavement, only to barely come to a stop in time?   Whenever I escape major (or minor) tragedy, I take the time to celebrate.  It’s like someone just walked up and handed me a big bag of money and magic.  Lack of pain and mental trauma is a big positive in Life’s Accounting Ledger.  This way of thinking helps me to put things in perspective when I might otherwise be frustrated that some knucklehead almost caused an accident.  I am fortunate that I can wake up each day knowing that I wasn’t involved in a car accident that killed someone.

If you’re reading this, you are wealthy in many other ways too.  What’s the number one reason?  Because you are a survivor.   You come from an extremely long line of ancestors.   Not only did your parents actually meet, but they actually had sex on that special night that caused you to exist (think of the movie, Back to the Future).  And their parents actually followed that that same sort of special path for your parents to have existed, and your great-grandparents too.  It was a great chain of extremely timely copulations extending back millions of years. 

In fact, those acts of reproduction extend all the way back to single-celled bacteria that, if you think about it hard enough, you’d call “Great Great Great . . . Grandma.”  [I illustrated some of the biology and math with this post:  “Ancestors Along the Highway].   There were so incredibly many ways that you might not have been born at all. For instance, your shrew-like ancestors probably almost died repeatedly 70 million years ago when dinosaurs almost stepped on them.  The odds were billions to one that you’d never exist at all, but here you are reading this post. You somehow avoided all of those detrimental possibilities, and that’s worth an extended celebration, right?

But you are made even wealthier by the non-occurrence of numerous other disasters, if you just take the time to consider them. For example, you almost didn’t meet many of the people you now consider your closest friends.   Someone just happened to introduce you to each other or circumstances threw you together.  And you’d never have met your closest friends if their family hadn’t moved to your town (or your family hadn’t moved to their town) to follow a job possibility.

I’m presently in pain with a pinched nerve these days.  In past years I might have bemoaned that I have this “problem,” but I am more often amazed that the human body, complex as it is, works at all.   How do those 150 trillion cells (most of those cells not even having my DNA) ever coordinate with each other to do even simple things?   When your body doesn’t quite work, then, you can remind yourself that it somehow—somehow—avoids breaking down in a thousand ways every day.  Many of those ways your body avoids daily bodily breakdown are priceless—a little too much of this enzyme or the failure of the immune system to recognize that sophisticated intruder, and you’re dead. 

Most of us avoid these disasters almost every day, somehow.  What’s that worth in Life’s accounting ledger?   To truly understand the magnitude of these threats we avoid every day, consider the sheer number of diseases and symptoms out there by referring to a website like Wrong Diagnosis  or WebMD.   Or consider the thousands of mental conditions that many people face,  but probably not you.  For instance, consider that you somehow cope most of the time–you don’t have to deal with serious depression.  Given your complicated life, how do you escape that problem?  Hell if you know, but you do, at least you escape crippling serious depression.  What is that lack of adversity worth?  It’s Priceless.  Add it to the plus column when someone asks you “How are you doing?”

Think about those mundane near-accidents that didn’t injure or kill you.   Think of those mishaps that somehow avoided injuring or killing those people to whom you are closest.  For example, think of those times that you somehow (you don’t really know how you avoided them) didn’t trip down those concrete steps, which might have left you disabled (don’t laugh—falling down kills more than 15,000 in the U.S. and sends almost 2 million people to the hospital every year).

Consider, too, that you are lucky that you don’t have most of the most common addictions.  You probably don’t repeatedly go around blowing your paycheck in casinos.  You’ve likely avoided becoming an alcoholic or a smoker.  What protected you from these common pitfalls?  You simply don’t know.   I’m not religious, but one of my favorite humble sayings is “There but for the grace of God go I.” 

It’s really startling to contemplate that you are totally oblivious to most of the adversity you escape.  Life is rife with many kinds of dangers.  My sister and her husband are one of the exceptions.  They signed up for a tourist airplane flight over the Grand Canyon many years ago.  They had a good time.  After they landed, the plane filled up with the next group of tourists. When the plane took off again, it crashed killing everyone on board.  For my sister and her husband, that close call needs to go in the plus column of their Accounting Ledge of Life.  

I adore my wife and children.   If I hadn’t signed up for a writing class 13 years ago, I never would have met Anne.  Anne had actually signed up for a different class—a painting class—that class was cancelled for lack of students.  I didn’t know it, of course, but my current happy life critically depended on people not signing up for Anne’s painting class. 

And if I hadn’t met Anne, I wouldn’t have traveled with her to China (twice) to meet our two wonderful daughters.   Looking back, it would have been so very easy for me to have taken a track in life that I didn’t take that writing class, because I had no idea that showing up for that class would have such earth-shaking consequences for me.   While I considered signing up for that class, I was in great danger, but I didn’t realize it.  As it was, I hit Life’s lottery by signing up to take that non-credit class for a few weeks.  I remember that day well.  “Good to meet you. My name’s Erich.”  It so easily might not have happened.  There were far more ways for it to not happen than for it to happen.

Maybe it is this realization that life is so tenuous that drives some people to detach from life, to become functional Buddhists.  Whether or not you detach from it, life’s dangers are ubiquitous. 

Such is Life.  That you exist at all means that you are incredibly lucky.   Whether you realize it or not.  The lack of bad things are good things, and that makes you incredibly wealthy. 

I’m going to stop writing now, to do as I preach.  I’m going to take some time out to celebrate my “wealth.”

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Category: Evolution, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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