(A shorter version of this article appeared in Personal Excellence magazine.)
Imagine being the one among 6 ½ billion living persons to hold the most powerful office on earth. Barack Obama as well as past presidents must have figuratively or literally pinched themselves at some point to make sure what’s happened to them was for real. Or imagine being among the fortunate few who have traveled to space. Or who’ve won the lottery. Or who’ve made the cut for the NBA. Or who have achieved any elite, exclusive designation.
Well you can start pinching yourself. Every day. That’s because the chances of you ever living were less than one in a trillion. In fact, you’re infinitely lucky to have a life.
You’re lucky because of the remote chances of your forbearers ever being born, still more luck in that your parents happened to meet each other (of all the potential mates), lucky because they conceived during the short, two or three-day window when the spermazoa from which you originated were alive, and lucky because the two unique cells carrying your genetic code happened to combine out of the billion possible cell combinations.
Flash back to your very beginnings – way back, when you were conceived. During the time of conception, out of about a hundred million sperm cells released, about 1 in 10, or 10 million, were capable of fertilizing an ovum, according to biologists. And 1 of about 100 of the latter were released. That means the chances of any two particular sex cells joining at that particular time were about one in a billion.
There was a frenzied struggle of millions of sperm cells vying to find a single egg cell. Of the 10 million, about a million made it into the uterus. Only a few thousand of those happened to swim to the entrance of the Fallopian tubes. A few hundred of those wandered to the right place: the immediate vicinity of the egg. Just one – the one carrying half the genetic blueprint of you – penetrated the egg.
Had any other sex cell made contact, someone genetically similar to you would have been born, but it wouldn’t have been you.
And that’s just during the short, two-day time period during which the sperm from which you originated were alive, or during the month that the egg from which you originated was released. Had your parents conceived a few days earlier or later, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Had any of your grandparents, great-grandparents or preceding generations conceived a few days earlier or later, you likewise wouldn’t be reading this.
To take it further, start from a point 200 years before you were born. What was the probability of you coming onto the scene two centuries later?
Two-hundred years is about eight generations. That works out to 256 great (x8) grandparents. (Four grandparents, eight great grandparents, 16 great-great grandparents, etc.) Had none of those 256 been born, you wouldn’t have either. Assume very conservatively that each of them had a one-in-a-billion chance of being born; to arrive at the chances of you being here, you’d multiply a billion by a billion 256 times. So the probability is about 1 in 1,000,000,000 to the power of 256. That’s 2,304 zeros. Essentially, infinitely remote.
What to make of the fact that amid all this, it was you who made the cut?
For starters it should give you a feeling of tremendous satisfaction. Savor your incredible achievement. Every day. Think about it: You were the only one among billions – nay trillions – of potential humans who ended up having a life. Whether you believe that happened out of chance, fate, or predestination, you truly are exceptional. Just as a winner of an Olympic gold medal should relish that accomplishment every day of his or her life, so should you for the accomplishment of making it here.
This says a lot about other people, too. The infinitely low likelihood of any one particular human being born should make you to look upon every other person you come across (except, of course, troublemakers) with a certain reverence. From the youngest newborn to the oldest senior citizen, from your next-door neighbor to the tribesman in the remote depths of Africa, each person overcame the unimaginably negative odds of ever coming into this world. We all made it into a tremendously elite, exclusive club here in this tiny corner of the universe. And we all should regard each other with the dignity and respect that comes with such exclusivity.
Most of us are awed upon first seeing a newborn, just by virtue of the fact that he or she is a newborn. But there’s another reason to be awed. This is “The One”. This is the baby who overcame the mother of all obstacle courses to make it to the delivery room. This is the baby who beat out billions of other wanna-be humans vying to become one of us. The baby doesn’t yet know how truly exceptional and extraordinary he or she is, but we do.
It’s so easy to take the things in this world for granted. But knowing that your chances of ever experiencing them were so low, savor every moment. Feast your eyes on the sky, the grass, the trees, the animals, the people. Listen to the sounds of nature. Feel the breeze on your skin. Or the warmth of the sun. Do it knowing that you were so extremely close to never experiencing any of it at all.
We’ve all heard stories of people having a close brush with death, who subsequently have a new appreciation for life and live every day with newfound vigor. As you had a close brush with never existing at all, that’s the way you should live your life as well.
Such an attitude makes the ordinary become extraordinary. Mundane, routine things of life like waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, looking out your window, or driving down your street take on a whole new meaning with the realization that it was only you among billions of potential humans who ever got to experience such things.
Viewing life in this way also could help to cope with an early loss. A person may die young, but the key thing is that he or she lived. Having the opportunity to live at all, even if it’s only for a short time, is an extraordinary phenomenon.
This mindset also helps us accept ourselves as we are: our genetically determined traits that we may not be happy about, be they related to physical appearance, mental ability, predisposition for a certain disease, or other condition. If you had a different genetic make-up – i.e. if, during conception, there was a different mix of genes and therefore different sex cells joined to form the embryo – then you wouldn’t have been you. A different person would have been born in your place, and you wouldn’t have existed. So what would you prefer? Life with all of its flaws, or no life at all?
While we all should strive to rise to the top, be it in our careers or other endeavors, not all of us will get there. But don’t get too distressed about it. You already prevailed in one of the most intensely random and intensely competitive struggles known to nature: conception. The reward: the opportunity to commingle with the other winners on this ultra-fascinating planet. And at the top of the food chain to boot.
It’s akin to the professional football player who may never be on a team that wins the Super Bowl. Despite that, after all is said and done, for the rest of his life he can hold his head high that he was one of the elite few ever to have made it to the NFL.
Eyewitness to the World
As one of the fortunate few to be born into this universe, learn about and experience as much of it as you can. Read books or watch shows about the geologic wonders of our home, the earth. Get a telescope to eyewitness the vast marvels beyond our earth. Get a microscope to observe the universe of phenomena too small for the naked eye to see.
Or just perch yourself anywhere and observe the sights and sounds around you whatever they may be, marveling at this incredible place. Whether it be a natural wonder of the world or your neighborhood street, everything is extraordinary if you think about it hard enough.
And be thankful that you were born into this day and age. Apart from living more comfortably than any time in history, so much more is known about the world and universe than ever before; each of us made it into an incredibly multifaceted place about which there is an endless reservoir of information thanks to the efforts of scientists, researchers, and teachers who’ve come before us. Being lucky enough to be born into such an amazing place and not learning about and experiencing as much of it as you possibly can would be a tragedy indeed.
The natural and animal worlds are extraordinary enough. But just focusing on the continuing saga of humankind is a riveting, action-packed, non-stop adventure in and of itself. Crack open any history book for such an account. Check your favorite news outlet for the latest installments. And stick around to find out what happens next.
Thank An Asteroid
All other things being equal, without any particular one of us making life’s cut, there still would be people galore, just not us. But what if other things weren’t equal – what if a few things had been a little different in earth’s geologic history? Then, the human race likely would not have existed at all.
Scientists say the dinosaurs’ demise paved the way for the rise of mammals and the eventual evolution of humans. But what if the asteroid that allegedly led to the dinosaurs’ extinction had taken just a slightly different course and missed earth? Evolution would have taken a whole new trajectory. Intelligent life still may have evolved, but maybe not in the form of humans, so certainly not any of us.
There were plenty of other near-misses throughout geologic time as well. For example during the birth of our solar system, even a microscopic change in the original motion or mass of the components would have lead to massive changes in the final composition of the size and position of the sun and planets, according to astrophysicist Neil Comins, author of What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? With such changes, earth may never have supported life. Even if it did, the evolution of life likely would have taken a much different course, and none of us would have been here.
The Mother of All Lotteries
So not only were your chances of being here ultra low from a biologic perspective, but from a geologic perspective as well.
It’s like winning the lottery among a billion entrants, and then going on to win another lottery with another billion entrants. The odds are minuscule that any of us would do so. But when it came to life on earth, we all beat those odds.
You were given the ultimate gift, and there’s no way you should ever take it for granted. So celebrate life. Relish it. Marvel at it. Give thanks every day for your life. Go out and take advantage of all life has to offer. Never pass up an opportunity to get the most out of life as you possibly can. Look around right now and contemplate how close you came to never witnessing any of it.
Above all, treat other people with the respect and dignity that come with knowing that they, too, made the ultimate cut.
Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.
The Winners’ Circle
Imagine that on an unannounced date sometime during the next 60 years, a lottery is going to be held. The prize: life. You have to be present to win, but you only can be present for two days of those 60 years. Not only that, but even in the highly unlikely event that you did show up on the right day, you’d be competing against a billion other entrants for the single prize. Winner take all. (Albeit a slight chance of two winners.)
So you don’t get your hopes up.
But guess what. As luck would have it, out of all of those 60 years or 21,900 days, you happen to show up on the very day of the lottery.
You’re stunned. But you still don’t get your hopes up, given the billion other entrants who showed up on the right day.
They carry out the drawing. And the winner is … you! You’re granted a life on earth as a human. You absolutely can’t believe your luck. Whether it was blind chance or divine intervention, you give profuse thanks to whoever or whatever gave rise to your extraordinary fate.
The life you’re granted has some flaws, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy a full lifespan. But who cares? You’re just ecstatic that you earned a life at all, given the gargantuan deck that was stacked against you. You really feel special, like you’re sitting on the top of the world, amid that vast and endless field of competitors you beat out. You were given the ultimate gift, and there’s no way you’ll ever take it for granted. You’re going to get the most out of it that you possibly can, do the most good that you possibly can, treat the prize with as much reverence and humility that you possibly can, and never forget where you came from.
Being granted the privilege of walking the earth, you look around and see lots of winners of other lotteries. Each of them happened to be present on the right day, too, and also beat out a billion other entrants to get here. You really feel a kinship with them, knowing that all of them, like you, overcame incredible odds to make it onto this highly exclusive planet. So you look upon them with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Of course, the 60 years represents the length of time that your father’s body was producing sperm cells. Over a lifetime the average male produces anywhere from a half trillion to a trillion spermazoa. Each one is genetically unique. They only live for a few days at most. Your dad happened to pick the day that the sperm carrying half of your genetic code happened to be alive.
The average female meanwhile produces and releases about 400 egg cells over her lifetime. A new egg is released about once a month. The egg that contained the other half of your genetic code happened to be released shortly before your parents conceived you. As with the sperm cell, had any other another egg cell been released, the baby born on or around your birthday would not have been you.