The Magoo theory of super-lucky living

When I was in high school, I picked up the paper one morning at breakfast to read about a terrible accident. A woman had been driving along the local interstate, and as she reached over to pluck a French fry from a bag in her daughter’s lap, she swerved ever so slightly into the shoulder – where she smacked into a parked car, crushing a man who was changing a flat tire.


I was obsessed with this story for days. What if she’d reached for that French fry just five seconds later? What if she’d left her house ten minutes earlier than she had? What if she’d never stopped at McDonald’s at the first place? That person she’d killed would still be alive, and she wouldn’t be facing the rest of her life as a perpetual guilt trip. That one moment had changed her life, and ended a stranger’s, forever.

Over the years, I became more obsessed with this “one life-changing moment” concept. It’s amazing how many seemingly benign decisions are made that result in lifelong heartache for someone. It’s worthy, in my opinion, of a Gladwellian examination.

I read recently about a young woman who was killed in a wreck, when her car was hit by another one being driven at 100 mph by a schoolmate. The girl had been about to go out with friends, then paused for a moment to give her mom a hug and say she loved her, before climbing into the car that would ultimately take her to her death. Later, her mom told a reporter, “I’m just glad she stopped for that one last hug.” All I could think was, If she hadn’t, she’d still be alive. That hug represented the time difference between getting hit and not.

Once you start thinking about this, it’s hard to stop. Whenever there’s a fatal car accident, a pedestrian death, a random street crime, or whatever, I find myself pondering the fact that none of it would have happened if the victim had made just one or two different choices in the half-hour leading up to the event.

But the bizarre part is this: If any of these people had, in fact, made different decisions – stopped first at the dry cleaners before buying those French fries, taken a phone call before walking out the door to get mugged six blocks over, or whatever – they would have avoided the tragedy awaiting them, but they would never know it. The woman eating her daughter’s fries would have toodled happily down the road, as we’ve all done a hundred times, never knowing how close she came to ruining two lives through vehicular homicide.

How many times have we made split-second decisions that randomly, in the end, saved us from being run over by a Mack truck? The more I pondered this question, the more I decided that only possible life-affirming answer was: too many to count. And thus, a new philosophy was born. For many years now, whenever something bad happens to me – missing a flight, being stuck in a traffic jam – I assume that whatever would have happened to me had things gone as planned would have been far worse, if not catastrophic. Damn, I am so lucky.

Take this past weekend. I played in a softball tournament, which my team won last year in a marathon session of games played in brutal July heat. This year, we showed up with the same lineup, and high hopes of defending our championship, but we were eliminated after losing our first two games. An ignominious exit, no doubt. But as disappointed as I was, I suddenly thought to myself: our subpar performance probably saved me from injuring a knee, or being brained by a line drive. Sure, we lost – but imagine what far worse things could have happened had we stayed in the tournament!

I call this philosophy the Magoo theory of super-lucky living. Mr. Magoo, as cartoon watchers of several decades ago will recall, was a virtually blind, bumbling antihero who continually avoided disaster by the most slender of margins.


He’d accidentally walk across a construction beam suspended 30 stories in the air. He’d wander through traffic, cars zooming around him with their horns blaring. He’d walk down a sidewalk a millisecond before a piano would crash in the spot he’d just vacated. In short, he wandered blithely through all kinds of dangerous situations, never knowing how close he was coming to disaster.

That’s how I choose to see my life. At any moment, an unexpected delay – irritating though it may be! – could well be saving me from bodily harm. Think of all those people who’ve rushed to make flights, only to miss them and then survive in shock when the plane crashes. In those cases, people realize how very lucky they were to have made a random life-saving decision. Me, I make those random life-changing decisions all the time.

It’s a wonder I’m still living, considering all the close calls I’ve had. Take writing this blog, for example. I could well have been out having a drink tonight with friends, but instead I’m home writing about the Magoo theory. Granted, I’ve had drinks with friends innumerable times with no (seriously) ill consequences, but this time would probably have been different. I’ll never know for sure, of course — but it’s certainly possible!

Thanks to the Magoo theory of super-lucky living, I’m safe and sound! Tomorrow night, perhaps I’ll have a drink with friends. But if something goes wrong, and our plans get canceled, I’ll know why. And I’ll feel grateful for having dodged a bullet, yet again.

8 responses to “The Magoo theory of super-lucky living”

  1. excellant theory. i have had many “maggoo moments” both good and bad. if i had only not stopped to scratch my head or to double take hot pretzel with mustard being held my someone else i might not be alive today….

  2. andrea says:

    So, that is why you said you might not be able to meet us tonight! Really dodged a bullet, huh?

  3. Lisa Parrish says:

    Well, technically I dodge a bullet either way. If I do meet you tonight, which is likely, I will have probably saved myself from accidentally cutting a finger while slicing carrots or something. If I don’t, I’ve probably just avoided getting run over by a pizza delivery moped. See how nicely that works? As long as you end every day wtih your limbs intact, you can believe that you just barely Magooed your way through that day’s threats. Lucky, lucky!

  4. Lisa Parrish says:

    Update: I saw Andrea tonight. Returned with limbs intact. Magoo on!

  5. Stephanie Wells says:

    Coincidentally, I just received an email recommending this novel that seems to focus on exactly this philosophy, only without your healthy perspective: taken to the other extreme of being terrified by every decision because of its possible consequences. Anybody read this?

  6. Stephanie Wells says:

    sorry: the link didn’t work. the novel is at

  7. Lisa Parrish says:

    Wow, this is great! What a great idea for a book. I haven’t heard of this writer — is s/he any good?

  8. PB says:

    I grew up with the bizzaro cousin to the Magoo Theory–God reached out and saved you or not . . . but if not, then you were needed for some greater purpose in heaven. Why am I far more comforted by the random? It is at least fair to everyone. I will be thinking about this all week, watching for moments of good fortune. Thinking about this and that damn tick (still!).