Winning the Lottery and Learning to Dream

Brad Holden on playing the lotto

I should start with a confession—two, actually. The first is that I very recently purchased tickets for the lottery. The second is that this fact still surprises me. I used to have a priggish attitude towards such things. I don’t know if I’m a rationalist exactly, but I know the statistical likelihood of winning; I know that lightning is more likely to strike you than you are to strike it rich, and so I assumed buying lotto tickets was—what was Adam Smith’s phrase? A tax upon unfortunate fools, or something like that. And I would have said this with the indignation we reserve for vices not our own.

Gambling as a pastime has no appeal to me. But I don’t watch scary movies either. Both seem like unpleasant means of artificially inducing stress. I thus did what we often do: I turned my lack of interest into a virtue. I even grandstanded once or twice. I expressed my solidarity with the poor, who, I contended, were the unfortunate victims of state treasuries. Of course, I veiled my condescension from myself—the part of me that thought the buyers of tickets too simple to understand basic probabilities. I’ve already said I was a prig, and my attitude was distinctly priggish. So I assumed the lotto was for other people, the kind of people who watch pro wrestling or put out tacky lawn ornaments. Not me.

So it was surprising then when I found myself buying tickets. I should admit that I didn’t buy the tickets myself, at least not at first, but I did pay money for them. It happened at work.

Normally, despite my evident disdain, I don’t think about the lottery at all. A jackpot might swell to such a size that I’d hear about it, even with my limited media exposure. But the experience had almost no effect. A mere blip on the radar. In fact, these reports were like discovering it’s an important holiday for another religion. You’re aware intellectually that somewhere people are fasting or gathering to pray, but let’s face it, the mail still runs. The knowledge doesn’t touch you at all.

And then suddenly it did.

I teach at a prep school, and one day at lunch I found my colleagues—educated people with advanced degrees—discussing the latest jackpot. The payout for Powerball had swelled to a billion dollars, and we were going in on tickets. A math teacher (who presumably knew the statistics) offered to pick them up; we each pitched in two bucks, and he texted us photos of the numbers as a confirmation of our purchase.

And that’s how I found myself playing Powerball. A billion dollars is a lot of money, of course, and so at the same time my wife ended up in a similar pool at work. Suddenly, we were both playing—we were both talking about—the lottery.

Two things about the experience struck me. First, I was surprised at how readily I went along with my coworkers. Despite my reservations, despite everything I knew about statistics and probabilities, when I was asked—when, perhaps more accurately, it was assumed I would want in on the pool—I handed over my two dollars without a quibble. Of course, these people were also my friends, but friends in that special category you reserve for people from work: you eat together, occasionally you drink together, and you share your daily gripes. Ours is the bond of soldiers on a common battlefront.

Two dollars is a small price to pay to go along with the crowd, to feel included. But my complete acquiescence to something I would have otherwise ignored startled me. I suddenly understood peer pressure and mob mentalities; I saw how a nation goes wrong or an army goes rogue. Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But our desire for acceptance is a powerful drive, little commented on. And I found myself, strangely enough, succumbing as an adult to one of the scenarios we warn our students against. Mine, I concluded in a self-serving manner, was a rather harmless surrender. But I have regrets—we all do—that stem from mindlessly going along with the crowd. We often lack the courage of our convictions. And this small incident struck me as profoundly revelatory of group psychology.

But it also showed me what other people were thinking, and that’s the second thing that startled me. Everyone has a fantasy life of some kind. At odd hours our minds fall into waking dreams, but these often seem indefinite and vague. On occasion we might wonder what we’d do with a million dollars, and because wealth is relative, I suppose even the rich must dream idly by their pools, in the shadow of wedding-cake mansions, of ever greater wealth—of buying, perhaps, a private jet or a football team. My own dreams of avarice were largely undefined; it’s easy to imagine paying off my student loans (what a strange fantasy) and then perhaps buying a new car (something luxurious but understated). After that, I find things difficult to picture.

Yet the prospect of a billion-dollar payout concentrates the mind.

I suddenly found myself confronted with real questions: Would I just walk out of my job? Or would I stay and finish the semester? If I quit outright, would I come back for my things—mostly books and personal files? Would I even care? María, a Spanish teacher and friend, was of the opinion that she would never return, that anything she left behind she could buy again, buy newer and better. And I could see her point. But I would want my own books with my notes and marginalia. I would collect my files. Yet even as I imagined my final return to school, her words struck me anew. Would I really bother with the posters on the wall? They’re mine, after all. I paid for them. Yet with all those zeroes in my bank account, I suddenly realized the black-and-white images of Toni Morrison and William Shakespeare could hang on my classroom walls until the end of time. I didn’t need them. I didn’t want the hassle of moving them. And the contents of my desk? Maybe María’s right: newer and better.

The point is not my own idiosyncratic relation with things, or my obsessive love of books (my true riches). It’s rather that by having a lottery ticket in hand I suddenly found my fantasy life taking on a level of concreteness I had never known before. I mean, sure, I could imagine having a lot of money, but now I had to decide how I would spend it. Real issues confronted me, pressing issues in some cases that I normally didn’t consider.

Where, for instance, would I live? Many of us chase our jobs around the country. I pursued mine to the Jersey Shore, and though I’ve enjoyed the area (New Jersey deserves a better reputation), is it really where I’d want to settle? And if not, where is? Michigan, where I’m from? Some other place where I have family or friends? My imagined wealth suddenly revealed the poverty of my daily life or at least the sense of rootlessness that characterizes so much of modern America. And in the process, it taught me about myself. I had to imagine buying a mansion to discover a rather unsettling fact: I’m homeless, even if not subject to wind and rain.

Of course, the buying of houses multiplies when one is a billionaire, and I suppose I would like a summer place on Lake Michigan. Establishing a permanent residence might be trickier, but perhaps I’d have homes enough to go around. In any case, I quickly found myself giving them away. María started it all. She bought tickets of her own and announced one day at lunch that she would give each of us, the three other teachers in the room, a million dollars from her prospective winnings. The only condition was that we would have to quit our jobs, a stipulation to which we readily agreed. An artist painting a picture, she was especially keen on the image of us walking out together, free at last from the daily grind. In the face of such generosity (I mean, she did offer me a million dollars), it seemed only right to respond in kind. And so I did. María is originally from California and longs to return home, so I assured her that I would buy her a house in Berkeley with my winnings.

But my generosity didn’t end there. I found it much easier to give away millions than to spend them myself, and in this I suspect I am far from unique.

We can all think of people who are deserving in some way; we all have loved ones we would like to help. With my unexpected riches I wanted most to share my wealth. I planned to place my sister’s children in private schools, pay off her student loans, and facilitate my father-in-law’s retirement. I wanted to establish a trust for a great, though unrecognized, artist and take my parents to Europe. I wanted to enrich my family and friends. In fact, I discovered so many benevolent and charitable intentions that my heart was suffused with a warm glow. I suspect, however, it’s quite easy to be generous with money you don’t possess (as every politician knows) and I recognize that my supposed virtue was of that common but meaningless category: one without cost or demand. Yet in the citadel of my mind or the palace of my imagination, I was truly magnanimous, and I derived great satisfaction from deeds merely thought.

Who knew magnanimity could be had for two dollars? Or fortunes won and spent? I consequently found myself reevaluating my prejudices. I had been too hasty in my contempt. We who buy lottery tickets are not gullible dupes or ignorant victims. We’re merely people who want to dream for a day or two. The lottery stimulates the imaginations of millions, and it may be that we use our tickets the way some people use therapy: to get in touch with our deepest desires. Maybe amid the hardships of life we want only the fleeting sensation of a pleasant dream. Perhaps that is the point. At least, it seems that way to me now.

I still don’t like horror movies, and the experience hasn’t eliminated all of my priggishness. But it has expanded my appreciation for something I didn’t understand, and after a few days of intense reverie, I found myself relieved the whole thing was over. After all, spending a fortune, even in the imagination, proves exhausting. Not to mention all the work from my charitable deeds. It almost made me glad someone else had won. Almost.

Brad Holden is the Managing Editor for the Marginalia Review of Books. He earned his Ph.D. in English and Renaissance Studies at Yale University, is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, and has received fellowships to study in Israel and Germany. His scholarship and essays have appeared in a number of venues, most recently The Oxford Handbook of Calvin and Calvinism; and his poetry, in a variety of journals. He has taught creative writing at Yale and other universities and is currently the Chair of the English Department at Ranney School.