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.

“To love someone is firstly to confess: I am prepared to be devastated by you.”

Each time I am deeply, profoundly hurt there is an overwhelming, dread-filled sense of inevitability and resignation that feels something like: “Oh god, this is it. This is the one that’ll do it. This is the one that’ll finally break me. My heart just can’t take it again.” Each time I sit, crushed, inconsolable, waiting for the world to end — and each time it begins again in the morning. My fragile, bruised heart: a fox fleeing bloodhounds – stricken but stoic – carries on beating; blood keeps pumping; lungs keep inhaling, keep exhaling; tear ducts (which I am certain have well exhausted their function by now) spill anew once more. Ups and downs. Loss and adjustment. And yet, I – somehow – despite it all – do not, will not – lose the fundamental trust and faith I feel towards humans and nature and friendship and joy and love. To possess the capacity to love another person – without judgement, without agenda – is a gift. To own the capacity to feel deeply is a gift. Connectedness to another – passing or permanent – is a gift. Sometimes people shine their light on you only briefly: entering your life unannounced and unexpected, inspiring and enriching and emboldening your very soul, and then they are gone, it seems, as soon as they appear, vacating the home they made in your heart. It’s brutal, it’s unfair, but I refuse to let grief take the shape of anger; to demonise or vilify. I will cherish the memories and the lessons and the bond – the capacity to find fulfilment and joy and understanding and commonality in another human. To be able to love and love unconditionally – I am so, so lucky.

“Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it” David Foster-Wallace wrote once. To feel deep pain is to feel deep love – absence always denotes a presence. All I strive for anymore is the grace to accept and to let go – with dignity, with decorum – everything which does not (will not, can not) whole-heartedly choose me back.

(‘White Nights’ by Dostoevsky, p. 35)

Emily Dickinson, and some thoughts on Grief

Emily Dickinson wrote the above poem during a period of immense personal and collective grief while the English Civil War raged around her.

“What is that inextinguishable flame that goes on flickering in the bleak, dark chamber of our being when something of vital importance is missing, or lost?”

Loss visits every human life. It is unavoidable. Inevitable. Philosophers like Feuerbach (and the writers of Love Actually) would argue that the one unifying experience across humanity is love, and I used to retaliate – in typical cynical Charlie fashion – that no; if one such universal experience exists then it is undeniably the anguish of grief. But then, I realised, the two are intertwined. One cannot exist without the other. Grief is but a measure of immeasurable love; the thing left over, the imprint of impact. You cannot feel grief if you have not felt love. And, in acknowledging that, we might (and I really try to do this) actually start to be able to view grief as a beautiful thing; something to embrace, to celebrate: the tangible evidence of all the love that’s left, that stays with (enriches, sustains, comforts) us, until – and even after – we ourselves are gone.

The grace with which we adapt to and accept the sudden descent into the darkness of grief may be the greatest measure of resilience — but it’s also an indication of the absurdity and duality of what it means to truly be human: to live (to accept death), to love (to ultimately lose). To be cognizant of eternity in an instant, to be capable of infinity. And that might be the most miraculous thing of all: to wander around alone – unguarded, unmoored – without matchstick or map – knowing that the darkness is creeping up behind us — gaining on us — will eventually and inevitably catch us one day — yet still unflinchingly trusting that those few, fleeting moments in the light have been worth it when the jaws close in.