The benefit of misfortune

Yesterday, Barack Obabma was elected President of the United States of America.  He absolutely stormed it; a landslide, a rout.  But just eight years ago his first foray into mainstream politics ended in failure. He stood for election to the House of Representatives, and lost convincingly in the primary. 

I can only imagine the disappointment of losing an election; the days, weeks, months of work that seem wasted.  The humiliation of rejection.  The sacrifice unrewarded.  But actually, in the end it worked out rather well.

As Edward McClelland says in his excellent piece, How Obama learned to be a natural:

Only after losing that race, in humiliating fashion, did he develop the voice, the style, the track record and the agenda that have made him a celebrity senator, and a Next President.

The setback was the making of him; his strengths were forged in the fire of adversity.  But more than Obama’s ability to learn from his mistakes, I can also see the hand of fate.

I was struck by Alex Massie’s quote in this post, on the day before Barack Obama was elected:

Had he won the House race vs. Bobby Rush in 02 [sic] he’d probably be lost in Jesse Jackson Jr’s shadow and relegated to a life of obscurity.

You just never know.

This helped crystallise a thought that I’ve been reflecting on for years now.  A few years ago I was involved in a car crash.  I had been driving for less than 12 months, and rear-ended a Ford Fiesta on a roundabout; the classic Milton Keynes road accident.  No-one was hurt, thankfully, but my pride took a battering, and I had to drive my parents’ car – with an unmistakably concave bonnet – back to their house.

I had to admit that I’d been travelling too fast for the conditions; I had made mistakes, and I would learn from them.   So far, I have; thirteen years later I’ve yet to have another incident.

But apart from my obvious failings, it led me to consider the fateful implications of every decision I’d made up to that point: what if I’d set off a minute later, or a minute earlier; what if I’d taken a different route; what if someone had pushed ahead of me at the lights a mile back?

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that although some aspects of my misfortune were down to luck, the same was true of my fortunate moments.  In fact, there was no way of knowing how they were all related.  ‘Lucky’ breaks could lead ultimately to disaster, and vice versa.  Stalling at a crossing could prevent an accident a minute later.  We don’t know how often we’re saved.

Some of the time we discover this in hindsight; most of the time we don’t. Occasionally, however, it all comes together in amazing ways.

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008 Politics

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