I had just been finishing up Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, inspired by the recent movie by the same name, when I came across his Bill James quote that startled me in its confirmation of my own lifelong observations on the ups and downs of human fortune:
Every form of strength covers one weakness and creates another, and therefore every form of strength is also a form of weakness and every weakness a strength. The balance of strategies always favors the team which is behind. Psychology tends to pull the winners down and push the losers upwards.
I said startled because it triggered this vivid flashback to Dr. Maddox’s wonderful eye-opening college class in American Literature Survey way back in the mid-sixties. We had been reading American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, classic essays like Nature, The Over Soul, and The American Scholar. Now it was Compensation, which became my abiding favorite. It’s not often you read or hear something years back and remember it keenly.
Emerson, who grieved the loss of his 8-year old son, wrote the essay to assuage his sorrow–the idea that life is volatile and not always under our control. Still, a kind of karma exists, or law of averages governs, as a baseball fan might say. With talent comes weakness. (I think of the Achilles heel syndrome; in baseball, the phenomenon of an extended winning streak, followed paradoxically by a slump; the latter notoriously true of batters as well.) As Emerson put it, “Everything has two sides, a good and an evil. Every advantage has its tax.” Emerson’s law of compensation likewise offers solace that good can succeed pain.
I know Emerson’s philosophy can be simplistic, pilfering happiness by denying the reality of nature’s gratuitous wrongs and man’s calculated evil. The law of compensation I would rephrase as the law of balance, and it operates individually and universally in the cosmic roll of the dice. No ethical or religious import applies here. Again, as in baseball, the law of averages governs. We can gauge how long a pitcher will be effective in a game; determine player potential; measure the worth of successful stolen bases vs. times tossed out; the contribution of walks vs. hits, etc.
We employ the law of averages pervasively in economics. We know that market economies are cyclic; in insurance circles, that life expectancy can be measured, governing the issuance and policy cost; that even in the history arena, nations like mountains rise and fall.
This notion of balance has helped me come to terms with much of life’s sheer unfairness, what Rabbi Kushner compassionately tries to address in his popular When Bad Things Happen to Good People
I don’t worry, however. about the ethics of it. I know bad things happen, whether by way of tsunami or bullet; accident or malice. I also know good things happen, too, sometimes quite unexpectedly, call it hitting the lottery, if you will: getting the job, the promotion, the girl; the escape from the near accident.
Not always is luck with us. Sometimes you just get tossed from the game. Hopefully, the good proves more frequent than the bad.
On a trip to India many years ago I got into this fabulous discussion with an older man dressed entirely in white, including the famous Nehru hat. At one point, I used the phrase, “problem of evil” to which he replied, “Problem of evil? What problem of evil? Do we not have day and night? Heat and cold? Summer and winter?
Suddenly I understood. Life has its oppositions, as the biblical writer of Ecclesiastes so eloquently testifies in his summation of life’s polarities. There is a time to be born and a time to die; a time to sow and a time to reap, etc.
Our task is to do what we can, pushing the odds in our favor when we can. Bill James probably didn’t have Emerson or the Ecclesiastes writer in mind, let alone even read them, but it matters little. His words ring with the truth of human experience: “Every form of strength covers one weakness and creates another.”
This law of reciprocal balance offers both admonition and expectancy: that we take nothing for granted and that tomorrow can be better than today.