Life is a lottery

July 1, 2011
ThoughtForTheDay 20200515 RabbiLordSacks mp3 image 1
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 1st July 2011

Here’s a wonderful story from yesterday's news. Somewhere, probably in Plymouth or thereabouts, somebody bought a lottery ticket on January 28 and won £1 million. The trouble is, he or she doesn't know they've won £1 million. The prize remains unclaimed five months later.

The organisers of the lottery are keen to find the winner and they’re urging us all to check our pockets and look down the back of the sofa to see if we can find the little piece of paper with the winning number. As they put it: someone out there could be literally sitting on a fortune unawares.

I think that’s a really cheerful thought, because who knows what fortune you or I could be sitting on unawares. Long ago I heard of a man who took pity on a rather dishevelled and forlorn artist who was going from town to town trying to sell his paintings with no success. Whenever he came to this particular town the man would offer him hospitality, and the artist used to give him a painting as a way of saying thank you.

The host was always a little embarrassed because he thought the paintings were too childish and depressing to actually display so he put them in the attic and forgot about them. Yes, you’ve guessed the rest. Years later, after both men had died and the house was being cleared, someone looked at the canvases and discovered that the artist was L S Lowry and the paintings were worth a fortune.

But isn’t life like that? I don’t suppose anyone would quite put it the way Cecil Rhodes did in the nineteenth century when he said: Being born an Englishman is winning the first prize in the lottery of life. But in one sense life is a lottery because none of us chooses when and where to be born. And here we are in a time and place in which, despite all the real and deep economic hardships, we are still on average better off, with more choices and a longer life expectancy than any other generation that ever lived.

And when I reflect on the hardships my grandparents faced and how they found freedom here, I find myself repeating that great verse from the book of Psalms: “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; truly I have a beautiful inheritance,” and I know I too have been sitting on a fortune unawares. That, in a week of depressing news, is a thought to lift the spirit.