On Luck and Selfishness

“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” ― Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men.

When I was twelve, I fell down a flight of steps outside my parents’ house and broke a front tooth – something that was to cause me much aggravation over the next 30 years. With the continual low-grade pain the tooth caused, I nevertheless thought the fall down the steps had made me more careful on future evenings, and may have prevented me from breaking my neck one dark night on a similar set of steps later on.

I am always trying to turn bad luck around and look on the sunny side. I am lucky to have kind friends and relatives who cheer me on. I am also lucky to have skill as an author, something that generates income.

I once worked for a chiropractor, a cheap and rude man who paid minimum wage and treated me as if I were an uneducated, servile person – probably just because I had taken the job. I regretted working for him because I probably could have found better employment if I’d looked harder. And I was fortunate a few months later to find a much better job in publishing, where I was liked and respected. That was good luck and timing.

But besides luck, selfishness is something I’ve also been dwelling on. How much selfishness must one have to be lucky? The handsome movie star Robert Redford once said in an interview that he could be “very selfish,” because he refused to share a candy bar with anyone — a candy bar! Maybe “self-preservation” is a better word than selfishness, because one needs to protect oneself. We’re all just trying to survive.

Most people are selfish at least some of the time. Even if they are “lucky” people, they take steps to guard what they possess. When I think about the gifts we all have, I realize self-protection is necessary to keep them. For instance, I am selfish, or self-preserving, in not sharing my life story with every Tom, Dick, and Harry I meet – I respect my own privacy more than that. And I seldom invite people over to my apartment. I love solitude and having my own space to myself too much to do it. I’m selfish when in a creative state because I need to be alone and not be interrupted by the doorbell or a ringing phone, and I don’t mind telling people, “Sorry – can’t talk right now.”

Maybe luck and self-preservation go hand-in-hand. I feel lucky that I’m high-achieving whenever I get published, or take a look around at my cozy apartment that I’ve decorated with care, or sit on my patio enjoying the sound of the wind through the maple trees. I have a lot of freedom. I’m grateful for what I have – eyes to see, limbs to walk with, and a brain to think. I feel fortunate that I traveled enough in my youth to feel I don’t need to do it much anymore, and I’m also lucky that I manage to live just fine in the city without the expense of owning a car. I suppose most luck is relative, an accident of birth or fate, but I tend to see the glass half-full. To imagine I might have saved myself from a broken neck by tumbling down a flight of stairs and breaking a valued tooth makes me feel both self-preserving and, yes, lucky.


Martha Patterson’s short story collection “Small Acts of Magic” was published by Finishing Line Press in 2021. Other work has been published in more than 20 anthologies and journals, and her plays have been produced in 21 states and eight countries. She has two degrees in Theatre, from Mount Holyoke College and Emerson College, and lives in Boston, Massachusetts. She loves being surrounded by her books, radio, and laptop.