The three main factors controlling our lives

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Me, my grandfather, and my mom at the Sandy Cove church retreat in Maryland.

When I was a kid, all I wanted was to have a normal family. I know now that the words “normal” and “family” have little overlap in the real world. But the fact that I had a somewhat unconventional home life was the peg upon which I hung most of my youthful disappointments and frustrations.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my family. Still, I had a single mom back when all my friends had married parents living under the same roof. I didn’t know my father—never even laid eyes on a photo of the man. My mom and I lived with my retired grandparents; my mother worked full time, and we didn’t have much money.

When I was about 15, my mom suffered a serious depression during which she barely came out of her room. This experience was frightening and lonely, and it forever shifted the balance of our parent and child roles.

On a scale of personal trauma or tragedy, the situation into which I was born and raised doesn’t rank very high. But it left its mark on me. My tangled roots, my less-than-typical origin story will always be there behind me. I definitely learned a thing or two from my jagged beginnings, but the question lingers . . . what if things had started out differently?

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Roulette wheel hanging out in the back of a shop in Brooklyn, N.Y.

When thinking about how our lives unfold—the advantages we enjoy and the challenges we face—I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s crucial to acknowledge the three main factors that contribute to our fate.

The first is luck: What point in time we are born and where, into what economic circumstances, what gender, what race and ethnicity, what family structure, what health conditions and physical abilities, and so on.

Luck jumps in at other junctures throughout our lives as well, reminding us that we are not in full control. Some luck is happy, like meeting the love of your life, or a much-wanted pregnancy when you’re least expecting it. But most of the examples that come to mind are negative: Weather disasters, car accidents, cancer, a parent’s desertion, the loss of a child, being in the wrong place at the wrong time in any number of ways.

Some folks will proclaim that people need to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and overcome their disadvantages. But it would go a long way toward mutual understanding if we could all appreciate, just a bit more, the varying and often unforgiving forces that mold each of our lives.

The obstacles I’m talking about here have been thrown in our paths; they were not brought on by our own actions. But we must reckon with them all the same.

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Old swingset in our neighbor’s yard on Lake Linganore, Md.

Which brings us to the second factor: personal control. Yes, we humans do have willpower, grit, passion, and all those internal resources that can turn things around and change our lives. We can make our own fate—within reason. I think it’s fair to admit that we don’t all have the same type or level of internal resources to draw upon, so some struggle more than others in certain areas. One person’s breaking point may be another person’s turning point.

In my case, there came a time when I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and stop bemoaning all the stuff I felt cheated out of having, like a father and a mother with a partner to lean on. I had to become my own cheerleader and my own coach, and I had to push myself harder than I really wanted. The results have been mixed, and the evidence that self-determination is a never-ending effort is right here in this blog.

The third factor is institutional. Some people prefer not to focus on this influence, while others spend a large portion of their lives trying to shape it. I’m talking about the form of government and financial structures under which we live, the various laws we must abide by, our voting rights (or lack thereof), the make-up of our health care system—I could go on and on.

To a certain degree we are stuck with the institutions that are in effect in the place and time in which we live. There is little doubt that these institutions hold some people back while giving others a leg up. Many people go bankrupt, are jailed, and even die because the rules and conventions of society have great power over people’s lives.

You might think that this factor intersects with luck, and to some extent it does. But many of the institutions I consider part of this category can be molded, changed—even torn down altogether. Humans, working together, can alter or upend these institutions because we are the ones who create and maintain them. But we cannot do this alone. We must form alliances.

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Three supporters at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 2009.

I worked for nearly two decades at a non-profit organization dedicated to social justice. We saw many victories and many losses. But we knew that we had the power to make change. We also knew that some of that change might not take place in our lifetimes, but hopefully some of it would. Just look at the fight for equal marriage, which began in earnest right around the time I started working for social justice and is now a reality.

Perhaps these three factors seem obvious. They certainly bear a striking resemblance to the famous Serenity Prayer. Regardless of how they took shape in my head, thinking about them helps me feel centered and grounded.

First, I recognize that luck exists, but I try not to dwell on it—I try to cut myself (and my mother) a break, and then move on. I also make an effort to understand the different ways that other people’s lives have been impacted by the cards they have been dealt.

Second, I do my best to take control of my life wherever I can. I promise to check in with myself regularly and ask: Is there something different I could be doing to make my life more complete, more productive, more fulfilling?

Third, I look for ways to work toward the societal change that I think will bring justice and opportunity to people’s lives. How can I use the skills and resources I possess to help bring about a better world?

None of this is easy. Sometimes it’s so much simpler to complain, deny, and avoid (see my previous post on negativity). But ultimately, the most satisfying results come from doing right by yourself and marking the way for others.

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