Powerball, Probability, and Prudence

As I waited in the train station Wednesday morning, I couldn't help overhear a conversation between two people standing nearby.

"Did you by your Powerball ticket yet?"

"No. What's the jackpot up to? $1 billion?"

"1.6," chimed in a third person.

"You know," said the first, "I found this app that allowed me to run simulations of playing the lottery. If I played it every day over the course of 230 years, I would have won a quarter million dollars."

"So what you're saying is that I have no chance," said the second, dejectedly.

An Allegory of Prudence Titian and workshop (c. 1550-1565)

An Allegory of Prudence
Titian and workshop (c. 1550-1565)

Well, not much of a chance: the chances of buying the winning Powerball ticket was 1 in 292 million. I'm more likely to be killed by a toilet (chances are 1 in 10,000).

Their conversation made me think of probability. As a commuter, I rely on probability. For example, if I want to catch the 7:08, if I leave before 7:00 A.M., I will almost certainly make it on time. But if I leave after 7:00 A.M., my chances drop (I guess I have a 1 in 4 chance of catching the train on time.)

I'm always calculating the odds that I will catch the next train; I want to leave at a time that gives me decent odds (at least a 2:1 chance of making the train). I don't want to cut it too close (after all, I don't want to be standing in the vestibule for the hour-long train ride), nor do I want to arrive too early and wait at the train station. It's a delicate balance. In a way, I'm exercising the virtue of prudence.

Prudence is the virtue that helps us use reason to discern what is good and the right means of achieving it. Catching the train is good. I use my reason to calculate the best time to leave that would guarantee 2:1 odds that I will catch the train. This is prudence.

As I develop this habit, I begin to think more about what is good. What is good for me? What do I need to become more like Christ? What is good for other people? What do they need to become more like Christ?

That's a hard enough question to ask--mainly because I can never answer it satisfactorily. But what makes it even harder is that the answer to that question is different for everyone. Not only that, but the means by which someone becomes more like Christ will be different.

Prudence is hard work. It requires introspection--we have to answer the question Jesus asked: "What are you looking for?" (John 1:38) It requires listening closely for that answer. Prudence requires that we discover the right means for finding whatever it is we are looking for. And finally, prudence requires that we respect that the right means will change from time to time and from person to person. (After all, if I need to buy a ticket, I will need to leave a little bit earlier to make sure I have enough time.)

As I continue to make my commute--both to and from work, but also toward God--I need to remember that the commute is not just about the destination, nor is it about the journey. Rather, the commute is about how I make that journey to my ultimate destination.

I hope I always travel prudently.