Although I understood that the word mazel is the Hebrew word for luck, I could never completely accept when my mother would say: “Bernard, in life, you have to have mazel.” Was she saying that any good future or good life I would have would be dependent on luck? I had difficulty accepting these words inasmuch as I wanted to believe that in growing up and making decisions, I would not be limited to a predetermined destiny, but rather that my actions would determine my fate.
When I told Yetta Kane, a holocaust survivor, what my mother had said to me when I was younger, she put it differently by saying: “You make your own mazel.” As a holocaust survivor, losing much of what she had and seeing the worst of humankind, she was not inclined to rely on luck to turn her life around. She and her late husband relied on mostly hard work along with their wit and intelligence to carve out both a happy and prosperous life in a new country, the United States of America. From a psychological point of view, making your own mazel occurs when a person takes on an internal locus of control perspective of the world. Because I can choose what I want to do with my life, I rely on my skills and abilities to achieve happiness and success. On the other hand, a person that sees the world from an external locus of control, views his/her life as determined by fate or luck and exerting little or no control over the events that may occur in life.
Of the many couples I have seen in my private life and my practice as a psychologist, often both partners will say that the way circumstances evolved it was pure luck that they met and became a couple. I will agree with them that their first meeting one another may have been based on luck, but I will then comment that it is not luck that both of you are still together years later as a couple. So it was mazel that they first met, but in staying together as a couple, they have made their own mazel or good fortune.
Was my mother wrong then, when she said: “You have to have mazel.” As we get older, what our parents said when we were younger, begin to make more sense. I began to see and read of family, friends and others becoming ill and dying at an early age, not because they were bad people or had not taken care of themselves but rather because they were simply unlucky to have had illnesses where there is no known cure. So really what I believe my mother was doing was equating mazel with health and fitness some of which we can control but much of which we cannot.
Even though I exercise and watch what I eat, I cannot control certain illnesses, such as cancer, entering and attacking my body. So far, I have had good mazel as I am in quite good physical shape. But there are elements of my life I can control: We know, for example, that car accidents are one of the greatest causes of death. Wisely, I never drink and drive. In a broader sense, the choices we make to improve on our life have an internal locus of control foundation. We may meet someone on a plane that gives us an idea to further our career and so, the meeting is luck based on that of external locus of control. But if we follow-up with the suggestions that we have received, I would maintain that that takes on more of an internal locus of control inasmuch as we decided voluntarily to take action of our own accord.
I have found in my practice as a psychologist that people with a healthy understanding of what they can do (internal locus of control) and what they can’t do (can be external locus of control such as changing the weather or preventing some illnesses) are more likely to function well in their lives. Those that attribute luck to events they can control, such as studying for an exam and doing well on it, or responsibility for an illness that is really beyond their control function less well in their lives. When you go to Las Vegas the next time and throw the dice, it is purely luck whether you win or lose. The part that is not luck is: 1) Going to Vegas and 2) How long you stay at the craps table. You can leave when you are ahead or you can stay at the table until……..