On unluckiness: Friday the 13th

Nothing was entirely supposed to go right and so nothing has particularly gone wrong.

Alain De Botton

Today, Friday the thirteenth , is purported to be an unlucky day.

It is unclear what, historically, has made Friday the 13th a day of bad luck, but popular theories have connected it to Biblical events that were said to have occurred on a Friday, as well recurrences of the number thirteen: the crucifixion and the death of Adam and Eve reportedly occurred on a Friday, and the presence of Judas Iscariot as the thirteenth guest at the Last Supper are some examples often cited.

In contemporary society, the bad luck associated with Friday the thirteenth is responsible for the dread of an estimated 17–21 million people each year, a number large enough that an official classification of friggatriskaidekaphobia has been named to describe the condition. Symptoms of friggatriskaidekaphobia include avoidance of things like flying on an aeroplane, going to work or even pronouncing the words ‘Friday the thirteenth’. Anxiety, panic attacks and a nagging sense of doom also lurk among the symptoms.

Without wanting to suggest that this kind of fear is a good state to be in, I would, however, like to continue a strand of thought started by Alain De Botton in a video about pessimism. De Botton suggests that there’s nothing foolish or superstitious about possessing a fear of the present moment, but that there is a surprising and useful amount of practicality, and indeed wisdom, in possessing an impending sense of doom every now and then.

We’re currently living in troubled times, and many of us respond to these troubled times with a feeling of injured self-pity. As though something that was supposed to have gone right has gone wrong. I would like to reverse the equation: nothing was entirely supposed to go right, and so nothing has particularly gone wrong.

Alain De Botton

In other words, every day is an unlucky day, or at least an unlucky day for someone, and our fear and frustration arises when we expect otherwise, that life should essentially be trouble-free.

In the video above, De Botton cites expectation as the prime reason for anger: when we expect things to go well and they don’t, we become angry. It’s likely that expectations also play a part in creating many people’s dread of Friday the thirteenth. When the date is seen as an abnormality against the ‘norm’ – a state of living where things generally go right – anything unfortunate that happens will be remembered in relation to the fact that it occurred on Friday the thirteenth. This is a phenomenon that psychologists call ‘confirmation bias’; something that can create a mistaken faith in the idea that things are, essentially, generally supposed to go well.

As De Botton points out numerous times in his speeches, the ancient Romans were much better at processing the idea of bad luck or ill-fortune than modern societies. In Ancient Rome, Fortuna –  the goddess of Fortune – was acknowledged and thanked when things went well. Success was not necessarily seen as the normal state of affairs, and Lady Luck was often depicted wearing a blindfold, to convey the fickle and unpredictable nature of fortune: she might strike at anyone randomly, with no thought for what consequences.

Although this may seem a pessimistic starting point, De Botton argues that it frees us from the distinctively modern idea that we have personally failed in some way when things don’t go well. The ancient Romans remembered, much more easily than we do today, that very little in life is actually within our control.

Fortuna, or Lady Luck. Above all things, blind.
Fortuna, or Lady Luck. Above all things, blind

Fortuna’s ancient Greek counterpart, Tyche, was similarly represented. In the sculpture below, she wears a crown, while sitting comfortably with a handful of grain atop a struggling figure – perhaps an ancient farmer who wanted only to polish his tools before she came along. A mere glance at her composed countenance can remind anxious onlookers – or anyone whose hands are wrung tightly in confusion at the state of things – that Fortune reigns as queen over all health, life and prosperity, and that this is something that is far easier dealt with when accepted.

The Tyche of Antioch, Roman copy of a bronze by Eutychides.
The Tyche of Antioch, Roman copy of a bronze by Eutychides
Harvey Dent is perhaps the most obvious symbol of the modern man in relation to the idea of luck: he thinks he can make his own luck but is ultimately and unfortunately undone by greater forces. His effort is sincerely applauded, but his optimism can be damaging when overindulged in.
Harvey Dent, perhaps one of the clearest symbols of the modern man in relation to the idea of luck: he ‘makes his own luck’ for most of the film, but is ultimately undone by greater forces. His effort is sincerely applauded, but this bad turn of events reveals the frailty of even the greatest idealists in relation to that most fickle of guardians, Lady Luck.

In the modern world, however, stability in the form of breakfast, traffic lights, school timetables and regular mortgage repayments can often disguise the inconsistency with which the world is governed. The benefits of surrounding ourselves with both private and public reminders of the fragility of life – rather than unrealistic images of perfection that we see in the pages of glossy magazines – can easily be overlooked.

In public spaces, sculptures such as those by artist Lorenzo Quinn can remind us that we are all at the mercy of Fortune, and that every day we have lived so far has been lived according to these constraints. Acknowledging bad luck every now and then – as the ancient Greeks did with their love of tragedy – can keep our perspectives in check and help us adapt to the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be.

The Force of Nature by Lorenzo Quinn. Click on image for source.
The Force of Nature by Lorenzo Quinn. Click on image for source



In order to resurrect some of the wisdom of the ancient Romans, I would like to suggest that sculptures of giant question marks should be scattered here and there. In busy city streets especially, or perhaps broadcast into the night sky in lights, so that when people step outside to wring their hands and look at the moon they needn’t feel too lonely in their confusion.

a mall in hong kong

Remembering that luck does sometimes get the better of us can be a useful reminder of how vast and mysterious, and beautiful and terrible the world actually is. It needn’t always be a cause for despair.

I entreat you (however trite the words may be) to think that life is not empty nor made for nothing, and that the parts of it fit into one another in some way; and that the world goes on, beautiful and strange and dreadful and worshipful.

William Morris

Along this line of thinking, Friday the thirteenth becomes less a terrifying anomaly in the calendar, but a survivable day, just like any other – albeit one where we can pause for a moment to acknowledge that everybody is at the mercy of Lady Luck. But if that doesn’t work, it might be worth remembering that today is the third Friday the thirteenth of 2015, and if you’re reading this, you already survived the other two.

death and life
Is that you in the mirror Lady Luck? 



3 thoughts on “On unluckiness: Friday the 13th”

  1. As usual, this post has nailed it. I like the reference to confirmation bias, it reminds me of so much of frustrating points I try to argue (logically, as I dislike ‘arguments’) with people when they use one event as their point of reference, but countless other times overlooked things when they didn’t turn out the way they predicted, a common example being the short man syndrome, people notice when a ‘shorter man’ is angry, and pin it down to his size (in some bizarre indication of how logic works these days) but don’t notice when a ‘taller’ man is angry, as it seems to ‘fit’ someone of his size, this was covered in QI, and I was glad they mentioned it, hopefully people won’t use the example of one young P plater cutting them off as confirmation that all P platers are terrible drivers. I really like the references to Fortuna, we could benefit from those ideas, plus that of the yin and yang, some bad in the good and some good in the bad (though perhaps not fitting with this particular train of thought). I always secretly thought, if you lower your expectations and expect everything to be crap, when comparatively it goes fine, then you end up feeling much much better about your day. xxx

    1. For this I definitely recommend reading Alain De Botton. He expresses these ideas much more elegantly than I can. I think the idea of expecting misfortune can – weirdly – be a very un-pessimistic starting point. At least remembering that there is no contract in life whereby things are always supposed to go well, it can make you more greatful, or at least more aware, of when things do go well. I guess studying history – or politics like you – with all the wars that are littered throughout, is also another good exercise in remembering this point. And that’s very interesting, about ‘short man syndrome’, I shall have to look this up. Sounds like something which would have far more impact in everyday life than we realise. And it is these invisible things of course, that are always the most interesting to consider, as they raise so many more questions than answers and remind me of just how weird, and strange, and weirdly marvellous the world really is 🙂

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