Miracles

Carl Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, wrote the following piece in 2003 about her husband’s death. I think about it a lot.

What’s more beautiful than the (im)probability of existence? The chance of any one of us existing at all is approx 1 in 10^2,685,000. To clarify, that second number is a 10 followed by almost 2.7 million zeros.

Now double that number for every person you love. For every chance encounter, for every miraculous bond and companionship that enriches our time on this planet, that makes us forget the ultimate pointlessness of it all — of life — all the inertia and inevitably of inhabiting a giant rock hurtling towards oblivion. Borne of stardust and supernovas and 4 billion years of single-cell survival… To not only co-exist but to find each other in the cosmos, at this time and place, in spite of it all — we are so lucky! I am so grateful for the people I love, the people I have loved – without motive, without agenda (without, admittedly, sometimes, the slightest bit of self-composure). I am grateful that somehow — inexplicably, implausibly, incredibly — the universe found a way.

Maybe we came from the same star a billion years ago.

Sometimes, one thanks some people for merely existing at the same time as we do.

I know I do.

Living with thoughts of death

I dread the day that the monotonous equilibrium of those every day and simplistic certainties I take for granted — health, safety, the comfort of hearing my mother trudging down the stairs every morning, the expectant sound of gravel crunching under my sister’s tyres as she arrives home from work every day at 6pm — is jerked into cold, cataclysmic suspension.

Nestled in the pseudo-cocoon of ignorance and denial,

Pried open by a all at once distant and familiar sinister irony:

Time, fate, life, death.

I fool myself into thinking it’s a long way off, bury my head in the sand, try not to think about it, immersed in and distracted by the solace of structure and routine. Yet in the back of my mind it’s always there, silent and shrouded but lurking around every corner; the unwelcome guest at every family meal, inescapable as a shadow in the noon day sun. An ever-present reminder burrowing into the fine lines upon my grandmother’s face; the disquieting implication behind stiffing limbs, muscle tremors, and the passage of time: none of this will last.

Sometimes I look at the people I love — focus on their faces until my eyes sting, willing my retinas to burn their image into sacrosanct memory — every pore, scar, freckle, discolouration, stray hair. Saving the image for the day I absolutely know exists, somewhere in the lottery of the future, predetermined, pre-penned into every new calendar I buy.

I understand now why humans find so much comfort in conventionality, why they invent tradition, embrace familiarity: these things are merely weapons against that faceless, sinister fact closing in a little further each day we are alive, which promises but one thing; to disrupt beyond reparation everything about an existence we thought we once knew.

It circles. It stalks from afar. I feel it even in my happiest moments; a pang of dysphoria, the subtle dread of certainty. One day I will hug my mother for the last time. I stand in my garden. Take in the space I currently occupy. One day it will no longer be mine. I breathe, oxygen facilitated by trees who will outlive me. We are all nature’s tenants, I think to myself as I leave imprints in the grass of a thousand former footprints.

Constantly bracing, constantly preparing. For the horror I know, I know, I know — beyond all earthly comprehension — awaits.

Heidegger, in his magnum opus Being and Time, called this existential orientation “Being-towards-death” — he argued the only way to live authentically is to constantly acknowledge our own death. Sound morbid? Welcome to existentialism . I wrote my 10,000 word undergraduate thesis on it. I’m fun at parties, I swear.