Soldiers of Fortune

While cleaning out my office desk in preparation for an impending move, at the bottom of one drawer, amidst countless pharmaceutical samples, business cards, stray paperclips, staples, rubber bands and pins of all sorts, I found a trove of tiny slips of paper the size of preprinted address labels: fortunes salvaged from luncheons at a local Chinese restaurant.

For several years I ventured out for lunch at Cheng’s Garden once a week. The food was good, the price was right, and it got me out of the office for an hour. At the conclusion of each meal, along with the bill, the waiter would bring one fortune cookie, which I promptly opened and chewed thoughtfully as I read the words on the piece of paper hidden inside. Invariably, I would tuck the fortune into my shirt pocket before rising from the table to make my way to the register to pay the bill. Back at the office I would extract the slip and read it again before tossing it into my desk drawer. My mother (and my wife) can testify that I am a packrat at heart.

I thought of discarding this impromptu collection of fortunes along with myriad other paraphernalia that accumulated over the years—stuff that I had no use for any longer—but then decided to conduct a survey of sorts. I read through the fortunes that had been meted out to me at random to see if I could detect some sort of pattern. I have recorded a number of them below.

Excellence is the difference between what I do and what I am capable of.
Joys are often the shadows cast by sorrows.
Hope is the most precious treasure.
Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.
The only rose without a thorn is friendship.
A mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Treasure what you have.
To be eighty years young is more cheerful and hopeful than forty years old.
Good to begin well, better to end well.

Writers of fortunes—those who soldier on, mustering their thoughts in unknown secret offices—must be wise in the sense that they have the uncanny ability to produce universally accepted turns of phrase. Narcissistic at heart, we humans personalize the good that is spoken of us.

But perhaps a greater collective good serves to spur us on to elevate our lives to a higher plane, if only temporarily in our afternoon postprandial somnolence.

That is why, like any good philosophical text, the lowly fortune cookie imparts some small degree of wisdom—at a bargain price.