What we do with it.

I recently saw an episode of Adam Ruins Everything called “Adam Ruins Death.” I generally enjoy the show, but was particularly intrigued by this opening, narrated by Adam Conover:

Here’s a challenge: I want you to believe what I’m about to tell you.

Not just hear it, not just understand it, but believe it.

It’s a fact that you already know to be true but have never been able to fully accept, and it’s this: you are going to die.

You, the person listening to me right now, are going to die.

It’s difficult even to imagine, isn’t it? Take a moment and try to picture what it’s like to not exist. You can’t do it. You’re imagining darkness. Black. But there will be no black. There will be no color because there will be no you to perceive it, and your mind recoils from that idea. It’s simply unable to conceive of its own non-existence, and so it concludes that it’s impossible. That you’ll live forever.

But you won’t.

All things end. All motion slows. All heat becomes cold. Life is an eddy in that current of entropy. A brief chemical reaction that lights up the darkness, and then, its fuel spent, dissipates back to nothing.

Just like you will.

Your body is a marvelous and intricate machine built out of millions of interconnected, fragile systems; and, as you age, each begins to slowly, but surely, deteriorate and break down. When one fails, a doctor may be able to repair it, but, at some point, there will be too many interlocking failures to proceed and, like a cascade of dominoes, your joints, your eyes, your heart, your lungs, your memory, your entire body will fail.

It will happen. And while it’s difficult to hear this truth, it is essential that you accept it, because every second that goes by in which you don’t is a second of your precious and finite life that you risk wasting.

So I’m going to say it once more – and, this time, try as hard as you can to believe me:

You – yes, you – will die. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.[1]

I loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Sure, it’s a downer of an opening (my two middle children chose to leave the room for that episode), but it represents a truth that our dominant culture has worked so hard to avoid, ignore, and obscure.

We will end. Each one of us. As hard as it is for us to accept, everything that we know of as ourselves will, in essence, melt back into the earth. And soon, relatively speaking.

While this idea could be scary for many of us who are surrounded by or fully engaged in culture that resists it, I encourage us to hone in on the very miracle of our existence, a miracle to which the above monologue alludes. Indeed, in their many, many varieties, our bodies are “marvelous and intricate machine[s] built out of millions of interconnected, fragile systems.” And these bodies exist amongst innumerable millions of other interconnected, fragile systems – other alive things. While there are numerous theories about how living beings – and, by extension, we conscious beings – came into existence, it is clear to me that our existence is mysterious and special.

Speaking about the probability of life generation on any planet, not just our own, anthrobiologist Paul Davies says that “we don’t know the mechanism whereby nonlife turns into life, so we have no way of estimating the odds,”[2] while Geologist Walter Alvarez notes that, “[a]t innumerable points in [Earth’s] history, events could have led to totally different results – to a human situation completely different from what we know today or to a world with no humans at all.”[3] Astrophysicist Erik Zackrisson avers that, based on our limited knowledge of the universe, the existence of a life-supporting planet like Earth “presents a mild statistical anomaly in the multiplicity of planets.”[4] Indeed, Davies found that of the 700 quintillion planets surrounding some of the billion trillion stars of the universe’s 100 billion galaxies, there is no other planet like Earth.[5]

When it comes to the specialness of our individual human existences, Ali Binazir quite popularly estimated that the chance of each one of us existing and not being, say, someone else with a similar genetic makeup (but technically not our ‘brother’ or ‘sister,’ since we would never have existed), would be 1 in 102,685,000. Binazir expounds on this probability:

As a comparison, the number of atoms in the body of an average male (80kg, or 175 lb) is 1027.  The number of atoms making up the earth is about 1050.  The number of atoms in the known universe is estimated at 1080.

So what’s the probability of your existing?  It’s the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up the exact same number – say, 550,343,279,001.

A miracle is an event so unlikely as to be almost impossible.  By that definition, I’ve just shown that you are a miracle.[6]

While some have questioned particular aspects of Binazir’s argument,[7] and while his assumptions about heternormativity and romantic love can be troubled, his main point is clear: each of our individual existences – the fact that I am me and you are you – is nearly impossible. But here we are, you and I, as has been every being in our ancestral lineage, back to the first organism. The sheer improbability of our existence has been passed down from one generation to the next on perhaps the only planet in 700 quintillion that could support such an unlikelihood.

We have always been nearly impossible. We have always been miracle upon miracle upon miracle, countless times over. Every particle of our being is amazing.

 

I started this piece discussing death and am ending with it discussing the miracle of our lives.

Are these things related? I think so.

I believe that there are a variety of reasons our culture obscures that fact that we all will die: oppressive groups’ avoiding the concept of material or physical reckonings often indicated by their own moral-religious systems; dominant Western science’s inability to account for the limitations of our knowledge about life and non-life; capitalism’s drive for perpetual profit, which intentionally ignores even the most basic limits of biological health and life, and instead prioritizes the myth of continual growth and consumption. This intentional ignorance, for example, has led to the catastrophic environmental and social situations in which we find ourselves. Indeed, dominant Western capitalistic assumptions that disregard the limitations of both our natural world and our bodies have wreaked havoc on both, causing a history of damage that will soon become irreparable… if it’s not already.

I also believe, however, obscuring the fact of our life’s end can also obscure the miracles that our lives are. In refusing to examine the fact that our lives are limited, we often ignore those aforementioned fragile systems that keep our lives going. In ignoring the fact of fragility, we also ignore very the miracle of that fragility. In other words, as we avoid the knowledge that one day we will cease to exist, we also ignore the wider implications of our existence. We ignore the fact that we shouldn’t exist at all – and we haven’t existed in all of the history of the universe, until now. And only for the briefest amount of time.

Honest explorations of the fact of our ending and our unlikelihood lead some of us to what we in the West tend to categorize as religious practice and spiritwork. While such categorizations have proven beneficial to many, I suggest that we broaden our thinking about these categories, so that the questions that we limited beings may never be able to answer can actually feed into the questions that we can. For example:

  • As scientific research has borne out, it would be virtually impossible for us to locate a planet that could support this planet’s version of life, and we are quite far from developing the technology to make large-scale travel/survival on another planet possible. These are facts. What must we do, then, to end the environmental degradation already taking place on this planet? How do we move this question out of the realm of debatable special interest (because there’s nothing to debate here, and this is in all our interest) to physical, spiritual, moral, and social imperative?
  • If each human being is a statistical impossibility, how do we shift our social systems to support the health of each impossible being? What should be the focus of our institutions?
  • If each of us will die, what should be our intentions while living? Is making (someone else) a profit an appropriate intention? Does the way we school or govern ourselves make sense, taking into account our brief tenure of consciousness? What do we want to exist after our end? What does it mean that fail to consider these questions as a culture?
  • Given the intricacy and complexity of our systems within systems, what does health truly mean? Are we healthy as a society? If not, what will it take for us to be healthy? Why don’t we do it?

Each of these questions can move us into different areas or subjects of discussion, whether science or spirituality, education or economics. And while delving into specific areas of thought and study is fine, it is important for us to remember that they are all related — while we are indeed complex systems living in complex systems, we exist on only one planet. Though we have been taught to compartmentalize and obfuscate these connections, deny and ignore them, they exist. We cannot escape the fact of our interconnectedness any more than we can escape the fact of our fragility and brevity. And it’s nothing to escape: indeed, actually acknowledging and digging into the very concepts that our dominant culture ignores or distracts us from may help us to reverse the real damages that have been done to our planet and people throughout the centuries of Western dominance.

It is scary (because it’s new) and will take time (though we don’t have a lot of it left), but it can be done. It should be done.

 

Notes

[1] Adam Conover, “Adam Ruins Death” (Season 1, Episode 12), directed by Paul Briganti, first aired 12/22/2015. Transcription help from “Adam Ruins Death Monologue,” Quizlet, accessed 9/27/2018, https://quizlet.com/132116637/adam-ruins-death-monologue-flash-cards/.

[2] Sarah Lewin, “New Equation Tallies Odds of Life Beginning,” Science & Astronomy, Space.com, last modified July 8, 2016, https://www.space.com/33374-odds-of-life-emerging-new-equation.html

[3] Robert Sanders, “Walter Alvarez: A Geologist Ponders the Improbability of Life,” Berkeley News, University of California, Berkeley, last modified April 25, 2017, http://news.berkeley.edu/2017/04/25/walter-alvarez-a-geologist-ponders-the-improbability-of-life/

[4] Nathaniel Scharping, “Earth May Be a 1-in-700-Quintillion Kind of Place,” Discover, last modified February 22, 2016, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2016/02/22/earth-is-a-1-in-700-quintillion-kind-of-place/#.W0lwNvkrLIU

[5] Scharping, “Earth”

[6] Ali Binazir, “What Are the Chances of Your Coming into Being?” last modified June 15, 2011, http://blogs.harvard.edu/abinazir/2011/06/15/what-are-chances-you-would-be-born/

[7] To which, Benzir offered this response: “To all you smartypants out there who just can’t wait to tell me ‘the probably of existing of something that exists is 100%’ and ‘this is all just hand-waving’ — yes, Einstein, I know, and you’re totally missing the point.  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, but some of you are so damn smart and obsessed with being right that you’ve lost the mental capacity to wonder and instead harp on the numerical accuracy of the calculation. 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.”

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