ANOTHER new year is upon us, and as we emerge from the holidays, we exchange the greeting “Happy New Year” with our families, neighbors and colleagues. We begin anew for a few days in any case with the hope that this year will be better than the last.
Vocabulary often provides much insight into a culture that produces it, and the words of holiday greetings are no exception. In the English-speaking world, “Happy New Year” is the greeting de rigueur of the season. In fact, the British even wish for a “Happy Christmas.” And, of course, our Declaration of Independence boldly asserts “the pursuit of Happiness” along with seemingly more weighty Life and Liberty to be “unalienable Rights … endowed by [our] Creator.” Happiness is apparently of primary importance in our society.
East Asians, on the other hand, greet each other with “Please receive many blessings [of Fortune] in the New Year” or some similar variation involving “Fortune.” Despite the stereotype of East Asians as industrious people who build their own success, the notion of fortune, in context of wealth brought by a favorable turn of events, is surprisingly entrenched among them.
People in China, Korea and Southeast Asia visit fortune-tellers and make sacrifices at temples and ancestral altars seeking wealth from good fortune (even film productions usually wrap with such a ritual). Nor are Asians alone in believing the significance of fortune in life. It is an ancient idea, from before the time of Christ. Roman “Fortuna” was the personification of luck, both good and evil, and was often a capricious and incomprehensible force in life.
In the United States, we generally scoff at such an idea. Most self-respecting Americans would consider it shameless, certainly in poor taste, to ask God for money. Ours is a society built upon the ideology of self-achievement, perfectly in tune with another ancient precept, famously phrased by Virgil: “Fortune favors the bold.” Ingenuity, drive and hard work are rewarded by success.
Some of our internal political disputes center on this concept. Conservatives see “a level playing field” in America where work leads to achievement. Liberals think the playing field is biased, especially in wealth and race, and seek to level it through social engineering.
Of course, there is no such thing as a level playing field. It isn’t simply about being born into money or a certain ethnicity. There are thousands upon thousands of variables that affect one’s success. Without fortune’s intervention, how would one explain why an entry-level employee at one start-up retires a millionaire while another ends up a pauper, holding worthless stocks? Nor, for that matter, does being well-born guarantee happiness and achievement. One only needs to look at Paris Hilton.
But if conservatives stress the imperfect mantra of outcome proportionate to effort, the sins of liberals are much worse. In their desire to create a fair world, usually through power of the state, they legislate fresh injustices such as wealth transfer through taxation and “affirmative action” that create adverse unintended consequences and exacerbate existing tensions. The road to hell, indeed, is paved with such good intentions.
So, if the world might be an unfair place, and our attempts to make it fair worsen it, what are we to do?
I cannot answer for others, but I am confronted with two thoughts. One is to give in to the seemingly chaotic nature of the world. Pursue my own pleasure and gain. Avoid suffering and pain. Let the rest of the world be what it is.
The other response is to have faith, to believe that the universe is in harmony beyond my scope and that karma may not be instantaneous, but is present in some form. Recognize that just as there is Fortuna, there is Justitia (the Roman goddess of justice and precursor to our blind Lady of Justice). Realize that effort does not guarantee success, but certainly increases “favors” the odds of it.
Perhaps it is worth noting that the term “happiness,” often defined as pleasure, joy or fun in today’s society, was originally defined in terms of good luck, fortune and providence (from Middle English “hap” meaning “luck”). The Declaration of Independence, then, does not provide a right to fortune itself, but certainly assures a chance for it.
Much Fortune to you all in the New Year.
James J. Na, senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute (discovery.org), runs “Guns and Butter Blog” (gunsandbutter.blogspot.com) and “The Asianist” (asianist.blogspot.com).