The luckiest man on earth

A sold-out Yankee Stadium stood up to applaud for two minutes without interruption.

It was July 4th, 1939, and Lou Gehrig, who had just been diagnosed with ALS, was retiring from baseball. The crowd was responding to his speech.

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remembers you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know.

So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

Stimulus + Response = Outcome

In a different reality, had Gehrig walked onto that pitch, thanked the fans, the team, the coaches, and his family before elaborating on his situation and announcing his retirement, he would’ve lived on in the hearts of the fans, but the world would have moved on.

This was something more, though. It wasn’t a speech. It was a statement of resilience.

The beauty was in the courage of hiding behind his choice. It’s inspiring not because he played an unexpected card, but because he decided to see his reality as something more than just his diagnosis, and he chose to see that in spite of how easy it would’ve been not to.

External events that we can’t control always occur. The universe and the laws of nature don’t concern themselves with what each and every one of us wants or thinks or cares about. It doesn’t mean that they conspire against us. It just means that they’re indifferent.

You can eat as healthy as you want all your life, you can work out three to four times a week, and you can stay as far away from a cigarette as humanly possible. That said, it doesn’t mean that there’s no chance of you dying of lung cancer at age 40, even though a person who lived exactly the opposite lifestyle died of natural causes at age 90. That randomness is a part of life.

In any situation, the single thing we can control is how we choose to react. Maybe not right away, but over time, our perception of an event matters more than the event itself.

There isn’t a foolproof trick to it. Sometimes, it takes an almost impossible combination of bravery, willpower, and even slight self-delusion. Sometimes, it just takes time. Either way, the outcome isn’t just dictated by whatever the stimulus happens to be.

Life will throw curve-balls, whether you want them or not. It comes down to how you adapt.

The Good Makes Less Noise

Before his diagnosis, Gehrig set a record that stood for almost 60 years. Between 1925 and 1939, he played a consecutive 2,130 games. He’s rumored to have played through multiple injuries over the years. That’s how much he loved the game he was forced to leave.1

To give up something you’ve quite literally lived for before you’re ready, and then to accept the prospect of physical deterioration and eventual death? That’s a combination of pain that only a few would endure with grace.

In many ways, we live in societies of abundance. The average person has far more than they’ve ever had before, and yet, there’s little real evidence that it’s made us any better off.

In fact, the reverse could be argued. With more accumulation comes more want. It’s a cycle of relativity in which we constantly compare not to an absolute level of satisfaction, but instead, we compare to what we already have. It’s stressful, and it directs the focus away from appreciation.

The one thing that helps break this cycle is gratitude. It reminds us of the things we become desensitized to on a daily basis. The things that really matter. The things that almost anyone can find joy in. The things that Gehrig chose to see in the face of death.

It’s not about irrational positivity or aimless hope. It’s about a more balanced view of what’s really going on in life. By nature, we focus more on the negative than the positive. The negative makes more noise, and it demands a disproportionate amount of attention.

Gratitude is about shifting that weight. It’s about acknowledging what’s good and letting that make a difference. Sometimes, it’s hard. Sometimes, it takes courage. But it’s often there.

All You Need to Know

Less than two years after that day at Yankee Stadium, Lou Gehrig passed away at age 37.

The disease that took his life would later bear his name. Today, ALS is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It works by killing the neurons that we need to control our muscles.

“Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.“ That’s something.

It’s a reminder of the one entirely certain choice we have in life. The choice to control how we respond to something. Much of life happens to us, and a lot of it, we can influence but not completely control. The outcome then largely depends on our reaction to uncertain events.

Gratitude is one solution, and it’s a cost-free one. It shifts the weight from the noisiness of all of the negative to the often neglected positive. It’s not that it finds something out of nothing. It merely uncovers the underappreciated.

On the surface, by very few measures was Gehrig lucky, especially on that day and at that moment. But that’s just one side of the story, and he had the courage to look beyond that.

Life is noisy, life is stressful, and life is unpredictable, but there’s also an awful lot more to it.

This article first appeared on Design Luck.