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What Milo Murphy Gets About The Human Potential To Overcome Adversity


The fourth season of Disney’s “Phineas and Ferb” included an episode where the title characters were accidentally zapped with a bad luck ray, while their luckless sister Candace and the equally unfortunate Dr. Doofenshmirtz were zapped with a ray of good luck.

Despite this, Phineas and Ferb still did exactly what they wanted and had a great day, while Candace and Doofenshmirtz still failed, because their poor attitudes and bad choices trumped any “luck.” After that show ended, creators Dan Provenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh took that core idea and created “Milo Murphy’s Law,” which is in its first season on Disney XD.

The show is about a boy named Milo Murphy who is permanently cursed with the worst luck imaginable. Milo, you see, is descended from John R. Murphy, who coined Murphy’s Law. Around Milo, anything that can go wrong will go wrong…and so will a few things that can’t. His family has a reserved suite at the hospital, getting to school is often a death course involving tidal waves and alien abductions, and he’s been struck by lightning twice (both times on his birthday).

Despite this, Milo is an almost absurdly happy person. He takes the attitude that his abysmal luck only makes his life more interesting. He’s confident that, whatever problems life throws at him, he can get through them all, and greets each new experience with excitement: “Sometimes the interruptions are the best part. And other times, they’re mind-numbingly terrifying. I can’t wait to find out which one this is!”

This Is A Very Old and Good Idea

It is one of the core beliefs of western culture that a man’s worth is measured, not by what happens to him, but by how well he faces it. Hector manning himself to face Achilles in a battle he knows he cannot win. Socrates choosing to drink hemlock rather than betray the truth. The saints enduring tortures rather than renouncing their faith. Whatever the turn of fortune’s wheel, a man’s response is what really counts, not the changing clutch of circumstance. Milo is the cheerful, family-friendly embodiment of this doctrine: a middle school Job with a sunny disposition.

By contrast, the modern idea, born of the likes of Marx, Freud, and their ilk, is that circumstance, society, “privilege,” or whatever other pseudo-academic synonym for “luck” you prefer, is what truly makes a man what he is. Whether it is ascribed to genetics, psychology, or economics, it amounts to the same thing: the idea that fortune, not action, determines a man’s destiny.

The antagonists in Milo’s world adopt this deterministic view, such as his classroom rival, Bradley. Bradley resents Milo, not just because his presence promises a disaster in the near future, but more because he’s jealous that Milo gets all the attention. He thinks that, if only Milo weren’t around, everyone would admire him instead.

Except Bradley is a boring, stuck-up grump, something that would remain so even if Milo weren’t around. He’s so focused on competing with his classmates (“In your face, other people!”) and on how they’re supposedly keeping him back that he doesn’t even consider how he could better his situation.

Milo Takes His Own Happiness Into His Own Hands

Meanwhile, Milo keeps his eyes firmly fixed on how he can mitigate the effects of his horrendous luck. He carries a backpack stuffed with everything he might possibly need to survive any potential disaster, from duct-tape to hazmat boots to spare engine parts. If he ever encounters something he’s unprepared for, he deals with it as best he can and carefully considers how to better prepare for a similar situation in the future. In other words, he accepts full responsibility for his own wellbeing.

By always looking on the bright side — “I got to hold a grenade launcher!” — and taking care to prepare for any potential disaster, Milo largely neutralizes the effects of his abysmal luck. It doesn’t mean he can do everything he wants. A freak accident might stop him from seeing a movie on opening day. But it does mean he can have a great life.

In Milo’s mind, success doesn’t involve popularity at school, or having lots of stuff (it’s hard to be materialistic when your possessions might spontaneously combust at any moment), but instead revolves around spending quality time with his family and friends and ending each day with the same number of limbs as he started with.

His overall attitude calls to mind Thoreau’s description of a successful man: one for whom “day and night are greeted with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs.” Significantly, these things depend less on any twist of fortune than on his own actions. His happiness, therefore, is largely in his own hands.

Where Cavendish’s Blame Game Gets Him: Nowhere

Milo occasionally crosses paths with a pair of dimwitted, time-travelling secret agents named Cavendish and Dakota. Like Bradley, Cavendish wants to win fame and glory by performing some vitally important mission. Instead, he and Dakota are assigned the most useless and inconsequential job available: protecting the world’s supply of pistachios.

Cavendish complains that this is demeaning and that, as a secret agent, he’s entitled to the same consideration as the others: “Where’s my limo? Where’s my fish tank? Where’s my attractive partner?” His coworkers, though, point out that he was given such a meaningless assignment because he’s manifestly incompetent.

Yet Cavendish refuses to accept responsibility for the state of his life, preferring to blame Dakota for anything that goes wrong. Once he learns of Milo’s existence, he’s immediately convinced the boy is an enemy agent sent to sabotage them. “Who else could undermine our every effort with such precision? A soccer mom, a slight wind, a potted plant maybe.” In his mind, all his problems are someone else’s fault. His success is dependent on changing other people’s behavior, not his own. The end result? Milo is happy, while Bradley and Cavendish are not.

Why It Works This Way

If your life is dependent on luck, then there’s nothing you can do about it except complain. You may get some temporary satisfaction from not having to admit failure, but it comes at the price of self-imposed helplessness, leaving you at the mercy of circumstance. Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, a sense of impotence regarding your own life is never conducive to happiness.

If instead you consider yourself responsible for your own happiness, then you may have to accept blame for your failures at times, but at least success is possible, and, more importantly, in your hands. The simple knowledge that you can do something about your situation makes a big difference.

The simple knowledge that you can do something about your situation makes a big difference.

Moreover, it affects your relationships with others. If you believe anything wrong with your life is someone else’s doing, you’re probably not going to have a very good relationship with them (i.e., telling black people all their problems stem from white racism is unlikely to lead to racial harmony).

Milo has two loyal best friends, a close-knit family, and most of the class showed up to his surprise birthday party. He’s able to be open and friendly with other people, even people who are completely different from him, because he doesn’t feel that his wellbeing depends on their actions. Freed from being in competition with his peers, he’s able to just enjoy their company.

Yes, Milo’s family curse does sometimes leave Milo frustrated, humiliated, or just plain hurt. No matter how good your attitude is, a broken thumb is still a broken thumb. Yet mere luck isn’t the deciding factor of whether a person is happy and successful. Even if you have the worst luck in the world, a positive attitude and sensible choices can lead to an amazing life.

That’s the law of Milo Murphy: anything that can go wrong will, but whether you succeed or fail is up to you.