Skip to main content

Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life: Especially If You’ve Had a Lucky Life

Joseph Epstein
Published by Free Press in 2024

The following was originally published in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette on 04/20/2024

Appearing from cracks in the malaise permeating our present age are conversations about what it means to live well, thrive and even flourish. Guides to doing so have found their way onto bestseller lists.

Colleges and universities have added such courses to their battery of offerings. Students at Notre Dame, for example, can enroll in professor Megan Sullivan’s “God and the Good Life,” while students at Yale can enroll in professor Miroslav Volf’s “Life Worth Living.”

While books and courses can introduce myriad practices orienting one toward a good or worthy life, when should such assessments occur? Are moments or seasons sufficient? Or must one assess as best as possible the balance of one’s life?

All said, when can one confirm that one’s life is good or worthy?

Famed author and editor Joseph Epstein would likely offer that an assessment of the balance of one’s life is the most trustworthy, one that can yield a sufficient albeit imperfect answer.

Youth by its nature, for example, lacks the needed context. Some have yet to experience hardship while others have tragically found hardship to be one of their few consistent companions. Certainly, some individuals who die young can lead lives deemed good or worthy.

For most, however, Epstein would likely contend context matters.

That context is just what Epstein, now 87 years old, offers in his latest book, “Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life: Especially If You’ve Had a Lucky Life.” The longtime editor of The American Scholar (1975-97), Epstein has published more than 30 books including his first, “Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility” and, among many others, “Ambition: The Secret Passion,” “Snobbery: The American Version” and “Victimhood: The New Virtue.”

Long before working remotely became possible in any broad sense of the term, Epstein noted one mark of his life — a life he feels lucky to deem good or worthy — is never having an office. The vocation of a writer and editor afforded Epstein considerable freedom.

Perhaps another mark of a lucky life is that only brief tours of the military persuasion to Killeen, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas, along with a brief tour of the aspiring artist persuasion to New York City, drew him away from the community in which he was raised and grew to love in Chicago and its north-side neighborhood of West Rogers Park.

The greatest mark of a lucky life in Epstein’s terms is the result of the parents to whom he was born. A good and worthy life is still possible for individuals who find themselves unlucky in this sense. Epstein, however, would argue luck is important if for no other reason than humans have no say in terms of their parents.

Those parents, for better and/or for worse, then have a considerable impact on one’s ability to identify practices oriented toward a good or worthy life.

In Maurice and Belle Epstein, Joseph Epstein believes he was offered a winning lottery ticket.

From his father, Epstein inherited his sense of fairness — fairness to the point of its being a virtue. From his mother, Epstein inherited a love of language. An extension of that luck was also that his parents’ social lives were defined by members of their extended families who also lived close by if not in West Rogers Park.

Those intertwined commitments of place and family afforded Epstein a context that allowed him to navigate the challenges he encountered, including divorce and the death of one of his own sons.

If a life is measured in those moments, good, worthy or lucky would certainly seem like nothing less than self-deception. When viewed in the context of those broader commitments, the love that long-forged family and friends offer can make one feel lucky and, in time, back on a course toward a good and worthy life.

One sub-theme that runs through Epstein’s life and is captured in his book involves the radical changes American society experienced and is continuing to experience. Three of the changes he notes in his introduction are the declines in traditional moral culture, nuclear and extended families, and print media.

Epstein details the declines in moral culture and families. But with the media to which he committed his life, one may be surprised, however, to find little in his book about the widely rumored demise of print; his opinions would be those of the utmost expert.

Committing oneself to a literary life, a life confirmed by contributions to periodicals and publishers that are either fighting for their lives or no longer exist, must be disorienting. One’s life may have been lucky, but was it good or worthy if some of the most critical partners upon which one depended for granting such confirmation ceased to exist?

Regardless of whether one reads “Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life” in print or on an e-reader, the quality of Epstein’s writing alone makes his book worthwhile. Considering which practices may orient one toward a good, worthy or even lucky life are undoubtedly beneficial.

Reading the life stories of individuals who grappled with such questions, however, may prove just as instructive.