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As You Wish

 Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish, but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.
-- Marcus Aurelius
  

Every day on my way to work in Hartford I used to pass a billboard on the highway promoting the Powerball lottery game.  The amount of the current jackpot was always prominently displayed.  Since Powerball is a multistate operation, the payoff can be enormous.  When the jackpot gets to be $100 million or so, traffic at highway exits along Connecticut's borders backs up as motorists from New York and Massachusetts flock across state lines to buy lottery tickets.  With the odds of winning the big jackpot at roughly 120 million to one, playing the lottery is definitely a triumph of hope over experience.  And while it may be pleasant to contemplate what one might do with all that loot, I have never been sufficiently tempted to actually buy a ticket.  

As it happens, fate has not always been kind to big lottery winners.  We are told over and over that money doesn't buy happiness, but we may not appreciate just how much trouble it can bring.  Lottery winners are typically besieged by greedy friends and relatives, quick-buck artists and promoters of charitable causes.  They are often dogged by lawsuits, scandal and divorce as well.  Tax problems, bad investments and even bankruptcy soon follow.  After a few years, many lottery winners wind up where they began, with nothing.

The actual experience of big jackpot winners goes against the happily-ever-after mythology of the lottery business, but it would have come as no surprise to the ancient Greeks.   Among their lesser deities was a nasty piece of work called Nemesis, daughter of Night.  Her job was to bring down the proud, the boastful and the undeservedly happy.  Sudden riches were bound to attract her unwelcome attention (a role that has since been assumed by the IRS).

The need to be careful of what you wish for is a common theme in folklore.  One of the best-known tales involves a poor woodcutter who is granted three wishes after he spares a tree in which an elf is living.  Overjoyed, the woodcutter rushes home to tell his wife.  She idly wishes for a string of sausages, and her wish is instantly granted.  The woodcutter flies into a rage at his wife's thoughtlessness.  He wishes the sausages would stick to her nose, which they do.  The woodcutter's dreams of riches die as he realizes he must use his final wish to remove the sausages from his wife's nose.

There are many variations on this tale (as well as countless jokes involving three wishes).  The law of unintended consequences always seems to apply.  The person who is granted three wishes either gets more than he or she bargained for -- or less.  The second wish only further complicates the situation, and the final wish must be used to put things right.  Nemesis never appears by name in these stories, but her handiwork is evident.

Idle wishes are often borne of a sense that there is something lacking in life.  The woodcutter in the Grimm Brothers' telling of the tale is described as poor but happy.  He imagines his three wishes will make him a rich man without yet realizing it won't buy the happiness he already has.  However, his little misadventure with the sausages is not entirely in vain.  In the end, he must choose between life as it is and life as he might wish it to be.  He chooses wisely, thereby discovering that the life he has been given is already his dream come true.    

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