Taking off from the story of someone who won £64 million on a lottery ticket but forgot to claim it, Julian Baggini offers some reflections on the fickleness of fate and on the wisdom of being, let us say, philosophical about paths we might have gone down but didn't:
Bitter regret is the consequence of being more confident than we should be about where those alternative paths would have led us. The truth is that we will never know. What looks like good fortune can easily turn out to be an incredible stroke of bad luck and vice versa.
OK, but I have two things to say about this. In our family we've been buying a weekly lottery ticket since the National Lottery's inception, but we choose the numbers afresh each time; we don't have a fixed set. And that is because we don't ever want to be in a position of having omitted to buy a ticket one week, for whatever reason, and those numbers then coming up. Regret? This would be an 'Oy Vey!' as long as a horseback ride from Cape Town to Cairo and as loud as thunder right in your ear.
For prudent stoicism in such matters is all well and good, but Julian's roughly similar mystery of paths not taken contains one small flaw. They aren't all equivalent in terms of the probabilities they hold. I missed picking up the £64 million on that lottery ticket is not the same as I missed stepping out in front of a bus, or even as I just missed running into Paul Scholes and getting to say hello and get his autograph. Even £64 million, I grant, might have its downsides, and a chance encounter with a poisonous snake could turn out well. But there are probabilities, and notwithstanding the warnings about gloom from wealth, I would be glad to take my chances from winning £64 million. That's one of the reasons for buying the lottery ticket.