A plane breaks up in the air and a baby is carried away from the wreckage by the force of the wind. She falls for two thousand feet and then hits the topmost branches of a huge cedar tree, slides from branch to branch, and finally lands in a large compost heap freshly piled with leaves and clippings. She survives with only cuts and abrasions. Who would think that such a thing might happen? It is so out-of-the-ordinary, so unexpected, so unlikely, so amazing that it must be a miracle, and that’s what everybody says: “It’s a miracle!” Meanwhile, a man at a motel four blocks away has just received a phone call from his wife, and she has told him that she is going to have the child they have been praying for. Filled with joy, he steps out into the courtyard, and looks at the flowers in bloom. The world is beautiful and he feels lucky to be alive—and then he is struck by the falling door of the plane’s restroom and rendered quadriplegic. Who would think that such a thing might happen, that a man would be savaged by chance at the very moment he was happier than he had ever been? It is so out-of-the-ordinary, so unexpected, so unlikely, so amazing that it must be . . . . . . incredibly bad luck, and that’s what everybody says: “What crappy luck!” Am I missing something here?
Extraordinary bad luck is just extraordinary bad luck, but extraordinary good luck is something else? If it takes the intervention of an angel or some other supernatural force to produce good luck, what does it take to produce the bad? The answer, of course, is “nothing,” and that is what the word “extraordinary” is for. We live in a world in which some things are routine, some are uncommon, some are rare, and some are so rare as to be almost unimaginable—and this applies to good things as well as bad. It is rather like throwing one-hundred pennies into the air and having them land all showing “heads,” or all showing “tails.” It could happen, but we don’t expect to see it in our lifetime. Now imagine that “heads” is the baby surviving and that “tails” is the man being paralyzed at the moment he feels most blessed.
Some people, of course, would say that the man is being punished by God, but why kill everyone on the plane just to punish him, and what singles him out for such extraordinary treatment? (Nothing like that happened to Hitler!) Others would say that God works in mysterious ways, but that is just a transparent attempt to excuse the fact that terrible things happen in a world which we believe to be the creation of a benevolent God.
Note Voltaire’s novel, Candide (1759), is an exploration of these bizarre notions, biting, sarcastic, and amusing.