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The Improbability of the Life You Live

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Attempts to calculate the improbability, or the inevitability, of any particular human life surface every so often.

A decade ago, in 2011, Dr. Ali Binazir posted an entry on the Harvard weblog that became a bit of a rage. It was a thought experiment that assigned probabilities to key moments leading to your existence: your parents meeting, getting pregnant, getting pregnant with the particular egg and sperm that led to your particular genetic makeup, and, working backwards, that happening with each set of your ancestors.

His conclusion was that the probability of any one person existing is something like 1 in (10)x(2,685,000). For everyone who replied that the probability of existence for something that actually exists is 1, Dr. Binazir emphasized that –

“The probability of sentient life is not something that can be measured accurately, and hundreds of steps have been deleted for simplicity. It’s all an exercise to get you thinking, … . And no matter how you slice it, it’s pretty remarkable that you and I, self-absorbed scallywags that we are, stand at the end of an unbroken chain of life going all the way back to the primordial slime. That’s the point.” Read Binazir's post here.

In my many conversations with earnest conspiracy theorists, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and others, what’s struck me is how these delusional beliefs are often rooted in a person’s desire to be happy and to explain unhappiness.

Dr. Binazir reposted this thought experiment earlier this year, as a reminder of the wonder of life during a pandemic that has constantly reminded us of death.

The general lesson is that the most improbable, amazing thing any one of us could ever do is exist.

Having evolved the consciousness to understand and wonder at this, you might think that we would naturally be the most grateful, generous, kind, and wise creatures imaginable. But the horrifying reality, as you know, is otherwise. One could, for example, decide to spend this amazing and improbable existence protesting life-saving covid vaccines outside a local hospital.

Perhaps this is why you’re more likely to hear me humming Monty Python’s “The Galaxy Song,” with its ending that may fit better a society filled with conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers –

“We're thirty thousand light-years from Galactic Central Point, We go 'round every two hundred million years;
And our galaxy itself is one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe. …
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space,
'Cause there's [none at] all down here on Earth!”

In my many conversations with earnest conspiracy theorists, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and others, what’s struck me is how these delusional beliefs are often rooted in a person’s desire to be happy and to explain unhappiness.

Sometimes, it is a desire to fit in with a group, to adopt beliefs and positions as an expression of belonging. Sometimes, it is an attempt to make sense of something baffling in the world, to have a feeling of control amidst chaos or crisis. Sometimes, it seems to just be an inexorable slide toward mental assent; outrageous claims feel less improbable as they become more familiar with constant repetition.

Combine this with a culture that doesn’t value or teach critical thinking or basic scientific knowledge, then put us in the middle of multiple intractable crises, and we have a recipe for disaster. We cling to delusion as we bear with our suffering – to explain it, make sense of it, assign guilt and blame, and cope with our misery.

Produce and Consume

This is our dilemma. The consciousness that allows us to wonder at the improbability and beauty of existence, also makes us aware of the suffering and brutality of existence. How we respond to this dilemma makes all the difference.

Wisdom teachers have pointed out for millennia that we tend to cope with some combination of 1) grasping for sense pleasures, indulging every hedonistic whim we can in an effort to distract, absorb, and escape; 2) pushing away everything unpleasant, whether through anger or despair, violence or apathy; and 3) attaching to our self-views of who we are or might become, constantly postponing our well-being in the present in deference to identifying with our achievements or even to an imaginary ideal.

Caught up in all this, the wonder of our existence escapes most of us, most of the time.

There are many complicated reasons for our individual responses, but for the moment I’d like to focus on one ubiquitous source of both our delusions and unhappiness.

For many, probably most, of us, our lives are dominated with messages that reduce our worth to productivity and consumption. We are exhausted with constant comparisons and competitions and trapped in a ruthless cycle of praise and blame.

To survive in such a hostile system, we learn to internalize oppressive messages. We then police ourselves, training our minds and bodies to conform to the expectations of society. As a survival skill, this can be helpful. But if well-being is our goal, this is all exhausting and harmful.

Unfortunately, the phenomenon happens in reaction to every oppressive system and culture, from racism to sexism to gender and sexuality antagonisms to ableism and more.

In the case of capitalism, we internalize that incessant pressure to demonstrate our value by being productive, and the incessant desire to signal our value by consuming the products of others. This becomes the basis of our self-worth, an antagonistic relationship with ourselves, others, and society.

Anders Hayden, political science professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, describes some of the common impacts of internalized capitalism in terms of dehumanization: "You can't feel value in yourself just for being alive – just for being a human being. You have to be a 'human doing' to have any value."

black doctor

As a result, we tend to identify with the work we do, assess our place in society based on the social values assigned to our employment, have a difficult time giving ourselves permission to rest, judge ourselves as lazy or as failures if we don’t work constantly, and undervalue our well-being.

Internalized capitalism combines with other oppressive systems to reinforce disparities. For example, systemic racism and ableism make it more difficult for people who are not white, and people who are disabled, to access educational and employment opportunities that society puts a high value on, redirecting them toward underappreciated and overexploited professions. This both reinforces prejudices of inferiority and justifies exploiting labor.

Hayden connects this tendency with the grasping for certainty that accompanied the old Calvinist teachings on predestination and the so-called Protestant work ethic:

“The Calvinists … had this incredible doubt of whether they were worthy and to prove that they were worthy, they had to be able to show that they could be continually industrious, and continually producing and frugal as well … .” (ibid)

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Can you feel the differences becoming clear? There is a huge gap between doing something in order to prove you are worthy, and doing something to express love, joy, or compassion.

In the former, we have to constantly outshine our competitors, grab all that we are entitled to grab (what we earn and what we deserve), and defend it against others. In the latter, we participate in the abundance of life; we live in compassion, rather than competition. But for any of us socialized into production and consumption, that takes training the mind.

“My Very Life”

For myself, there’s a very simple chant from the Buddhist tradition that has been a vital part of my daily practice for many years: “My very life is sustained through the gifts of others.” It’s not a new insight, but it is one that is easily forgotten. That’s why it is included in a chant called “Ten Subjects for Frequent Recollection,” which I first encountered in the Thai Forest tradition of Buddhism.

With a title like that, you probably aren’t surprised that there is a lot of repetition involved. It’s a common technique to help with memorization, to reflect the process of building and keeping habits, and to support focusing and concentrating the mind. So for each of the recollections, you chant, “This should be reflected upon again and again by one who has gone forth.”

Adding reflection to recitation is key. The recitation helps train the mind to pay attention in a certain way and then to recognize insight and understanding when we do so. But it’s not one and done; we reflect “again and again.” This acknowledges that new habits of thinking and doing take time and practice to establish, especially if we are unlearning and healing from internalized oppression.

In the Buddhist tradition, a person who wants to prioritize this kind of training can become a monastic, dedicating their life to reflecting again and again. This brings us to that next phrase, “one who has gone forth,” for a monastic has left home, secular employment, and all the pleasures, conveniences, and (the illusion of) security of the socially expected.

We can connect this with our experience today of internalized capitalism. Buddhist monastics choose a lifestyle completely out of step with the capitalist values of production and consumption.

They are sometimes described as “owning nothing,” and many traditional orders still go on alms round each morning to receive their daily bowl of rice. Their lives are quite literally dependent on their neighbors’ generosity for food, medicine, shelter, and clothes. This is the original context for reflecting: “My very life is sustained through the gifts of others.”

I am not a monastic, but I still chant these words, usually every day, as part of training my mind. The repetition has been a key part of the ongoing work of undoing internalized capitalism, and the shift in perspective is continuously liberating, at least for me.

I am invited to reflect on how I can relate to life, others, and the earth with more gratitude, open-heartedness, and joy. I often catch myself throughout the day reflecting on this phrase. “My very life” means, not the life I’ve imagined, not my perceptions and desires, and not the expectations I’ve been socialized to believe are real, but the actual, very life that exists in this moment.

This very life is breathing, eating, drinking; laughing, singing, playing; reading, teaching, supporting; cleaning, sleeping, caring for the body. My very life is made up of silly jokes, painful toothaches, cooking meals for friends, savoring a cup of hot tea, and watching the butterflies sip nectar from the New England Asters.

It also means the intimate and intricate microbiome that has evolved with humanity, each of us a walking universe of “eukaryotes, archaea, bacteria and viruses,” living on and in us, whose cells outnumber the cells we call human by as much as 10 to 1.

In many cases, we depend on these microorganisms as much as they depend on us, for functions from digestion to immune response. And on the macro scale, my very life cannot be separated from the lives of my ancestors, whose genes live on in me. Nor can I sever myself from the billions of other humans I share this planet with.

“My very life,” it turns out, includes much that I would otherwise ignore or forget about. These reflections shatter the illusion that I am somehow utterly independent, or that I can ultimately separate out my life and wellbeing from the lives of others. We are intimately connected to one another in so many ways.

This is part of the meaning of the next phrase, “is sustained,” which reminds me that my very life is not permanent and is not guaranteed. My body is a wondrous process and amazingly resilient for all I’ve asked of it through the years. Yet it is also so dependent on things outside of my immediate control.

Think, for instance, about how our lives are sustained by the air we breathe, and which we share with every other living being on this planet. When we do so, each breath becomes a gift, if I’m willing to remember it as the amazing process it really is. For example, the average human breath contains about 25 sextillion molecules, that we share with all other beings. A sextillion has 21 zeroes – in every breath.

To look at it in another way, Ethan Siegel, answering the question “How Many Atoms Do We Have In Common With One Another?,” wrote that:
“right now, if you take a deep breath and then exhale, by the time a year goes by, approximately one atom from that breath will wind up in every other person on Earth's lungs at any moment in time. … Every time you breathe in, you're breathing atoms of air that were once inside another human being. Every time you take a drink of water, you're drinking water that was once inside another human being. And every bite of food you take consists of atoms that were inside another person. We all share the same planet, the same biosphere, and — at a fundamental level — even the same atoms. / At an atomic level, we're all incredibly deeply connected. Inside your body, right now, are hundreds of billions of atoms that were once inside each other human being on Earth. Throughout the generations and the aeons, those same atoms continue to make up everything: the atoms of the dinosaurs, the plants, the trilobites, and even the single-celled organisms that once dominated our planet are now inside you. / It's your turn now.”

“We Are Made to Live Together”

We could never deserve any of this; we cannot earn the opportunity to live. It is all a gift. And, if our hearts are open, we understand that the very lives of others are also sustained through the gifts we share with them. We become free from the fears that systems like capitalism instill in us: fear of losing status and reputation, fear of not consuming the expected things in the expected ways, and the looming fear of not being worthy of care, life, and love. Like “one who has gone forth,” we can embody this freedom, and savor the joys of generosity, kindness, and love. “A human being, if she is a true human being,” Thich Nhat Hanh taught us, “is enough to make the whole world rejoice.” (Touching Peace, 14)

In what would be his final Christmas sermon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed that we are all interdependent, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.” Our lives and choices affect one another, whether we like it or not. King insisted that “We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

Our wellbeing is bound up together. As King asked, “Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”

As King knew so well, there is much that is unjust in this world, and so much suffering. But King also knew that – “we will never have peace in the world until [humans] everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.” (ibid)

Our movements for social change, and our daily practices for changing ourselves, need to hold all this together. We need to be with the injustice and suffering with unflinching honesty; we need to be with the goodness with unflinching honesty.

We carry both grief and gladness within us. We mourn what is wrong, even as we appreciate all that has to go right for us to even be able to notice what goes wrong. We don’t diminish injustice, but we also do not diminish joy. By doing so, we stay grounded in wellbeing, and aligned with what makes fighting for peace and justice worthwhile in the first place.

It takes time, and it takes practice, to remember that: “My very life is sustained by the gifts of others.” But all of this is possible, and we can do it. It is made up of our normal, everyday, human lives; it is the gift of being alive.

But whatever world we sustain, it will be our choice. We can heal the suffering born of greed, hatred, and delusion, and we can bring into existence communities filled with generosity, compassion, and truth. We have this amazing gift of life; let’s live in such a way that the whole world will rejoice.

david ketchum

The Emerging Church