I have never considered myself much of a gambler. I’ve bought a handful of lottery scratch tickets through the years ($1 each), mostly to put in Christmas stockings, but I’ve never been addicted to investing serious money in Megabucks or Powerball or anything like that. I know that some Mainers consistently and faithfully spend a lot of their hard-earned cash on the dream of winning big. I see them in the stores, many dressed shabbily, standing in line for their tickets, hoping that this time they will finally get the luck they deserve.
When we were still living in Tennessee, Ed and I attended Annual Conference, the local governing body of the United Methodist Church. I remember one year sitting in a huge sanctuary while the members (consisting of clergy and lay representatives) debated the problem of gambling. They knew that poor people who could least afford it were a major source of revenue for state lotteries, and they felt it was their Christian duty to pass an official church resolution condemning the lotteries and discouraging members’ participation in them. Ed and I, and maybe a few others with whom we were sitting, brought up amongst ourselves the topic of the stock market. Wasn’t that gambling? Many people have won and lost fortunes in the stock market. True, the odds are more in your favor than the odds of winning the lottery, but it seemed to us that it was still gambling in its own way, albeit a more socially acceptable form of gambling (in which, of course, the United Methodist Church had financial interests). The other difference, of course, is that the stock market has been a form of gambling for the wealthier people, and the lottery has been the mainstay of the poor.
I’m not trying to speak against or for the lottery, the race track, or the stock market. I have just been thinking about gambling the last few weeks, because I found myself right in the midst of it. I’m talking about gas prices.
I pass my preferred gas station on my way to work every morning, and they are one of these businesses that stays open all night, so at 4:00 a.m. it is lit up and ready to go. As I drive by, I always look at the price, illuminated as well, right by the street. Then I glance down at my dashboard gauge to see how much gas is left in my tank. If my gauge shows my tank is running under half, the gambling conversation begins in my head.
“It’s $2.98 a gallon today. Should I go ahead and fill up, gambling against the chance that it will be $3.00 tomorrow? Or should I wait instead, gambling on the fact that it will go down tomorrow?” It has happened both ways, you know. I’ve seen the price at $2.98, the next day it was $3.05, and folks filled up, thinking it was a rising trend, when the very next day, it was back down to $2.98! Gambling on gas prices is a daily occurrence in this country.
The conclusion, of course, is that we all gamble all our lives. We gamble when we get in a car that we won’t get in a wreck, thinking the necessity to drive the car outweighs the risk of getting injured or killed. We gamble if we get on a plane or other mode of transportation - same scenario. We gamble when we buy an appliance if we choose to buy or not buy the “3-year protection plan.” We gamble when we buy a house, sell a house, or move. We gamble if we change jobs. We gamble if we don’t back up our hard drives. We gamble on a choice of colleges or universities for us or our kids. Heck, we even take a huge gamble when we have kids at all - or choose a mate. I married Ed, an alcoholic, gambling on odds that he would eventually get sober (which took WAY longer than I had imagined, but the gamble paid off in 1984).
We have whole industries based on gambling - they’re called insurance companies. Reader’s Digest printed a timely observation a few years ago, which said something like this: “The life insurance company is betting you don’t die soon. You’re betting you do. You hope they win, and you’re paying them to think that way!”
I know those poor people can’t afford those lottery tickets. I know gambling can be a debilitating addiction. But I see how those poor people live, and they’re not really gambling; they’re just buying hope. I don’t know if they realize the calculations that say the odds are enormously against them, but I think they must know that already, in a myriad of ways. They’re used to the odds being against them. The hope of winning the lottery is the only hope they have for a better future, at least from their perspective. Sad, but true.
One definition of gambling is “an enterprise undertaken or attempted with a risk of loss and a chance of profit or success.” That certainly sounds to me like a definition of life - for all of us.