What Are the Odds?

I often choose to be annoyed by the tag line people attach to this or that online profile, but a few weeks ago, I saw one I liked: “Just to live is holy. Just to be is a blessing.”

A friend at work recently said that he often thinks about how huge the odds against his existence are. I once heard that if the timing at the Big Bang had been off by a trillionth of a second, particles would never have formed, much less stars, planets, and living beings. (This is one of those “I heard it somewhere” scientific facts rather than my usual “thoroughly researched on Google” scientific facts.)

He pointed out that you don’t have to get cosmic to be boggled by your good fortune. You only have to go a few branches back in your family tree because all of these people throughout history had to not only meet but also get together and feel frisky at an exact moment for your genome to come into existence. Not to mention all the twists and turns evolution didn’t take.

And then he said, “And what do we do with it? Play video games.” My internal response to this kind of reminder used to be, wow, I really need to change what I do. But trying to force myself to change my actions through guilt and mental chastisement has never really worked. The more effective question for me right now is “How do we do whatever we’re doing?”

If I could wake up every morning wildly grateful for and astonished by my existence, if I could maintain that reverence and wonder throughout the day whether I was doing dishes, working, or playing video games, I think my actions would change effortlessly, as a natural extension of my approach to life. If, with the psalmist, I could remember to sing, “I praise you, Lord, for I am wonderfully made,” I might start to do more of what I was made to do.

There are small mysteries in this life, like why no one can create a generic Ban-Aid that actually sticks to your skin. Then there are the larger mysteries.

Like this one: Did you know that for every kernel in an ear of corn, there’s a strand of silk that brings the pollen to that kernel? Each individual kernel is important enough to warrant its very own pollen delivery system.

corn plant showing silk
By Pollinator at en.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons

Those tufts of silk coming out the top of an ear of corn don’t appear all that well organized. It seems altogether possible that one if not many strands would be missed, yet in all the corn I’ve eaten in my life, I’ve seen very few unpollinated kernels. And it’s not as if corn sellers can pick out the cobs with a few unpollinated kernels here and there.

I don’t think understanding the corn fertilization mechanism down to the mitochondria or the molecular exchange across cell walls reduces the mystery of such an intricate system—for every ear in the history of corn!—one bit. If anything, the biological complexity provides more of a sense of wonder, one more opportunity to say how on Earth did it develop the ability to do that?

We sometimes think that if we know the how, we understand the whole, and if we understand it, there’s nothing to marvel at anymore. If we can explain it, we’ve mastered it, and it’s no longer worthy of the same level of respect. We can move on to figuring out the next thing.

But I think that the more we know, the more amazing and mysterious something can become. Corn silk can be transformed from those annoying strings that insist on clinging to your corn to a source of life. How cool is that?

Awed and Amazed

It’s been a cup runneth over kind of summer on the Central Coast.

A couple of weeks ago a friend and I met by the beach to talk about writing and ended up bird watching. A swarm—yes, a swarm, as in way beyond a flock—of sooty shearwaters had turned a large patch of ocean brown. They couldn’t have been more than 100 yards off shore.
thousands of sooty shearwaters on the water
At some point, we figured we’d had our evening’s worth of magnificence and turned away, only to be lured back by the number of birds, their closeness, the constant splashes of pelicans fishing. I felt both the desire to and the impossibility of taking it all in.

At the same time, a few whales took up residence in Avila Bay and were kind enough to let the human world know about it by sticking their heads out of the water to feed, breaching, and jumping. I didn’t see the whales, but I did see some phenomenal pictures. A friend who did see them spoke of trying to leave several times and being pulled back to watch some more, much as we had been with the birds.

There’s a lot in life that’s just too big or too wonderful to absorb. Part of my brain wanted to hold onto and process all of those birds, to sort them or comprehend them. But what kept us watching wasn’t the possibility of comprehension.

Knowing exactly how many birds there were or understanding why the fish they were after had come so close to shore wouldn’t have improved the experience. If you measured every detail and understood every interaction at every moment, all that knowledge would not add up to the sense of sheer magnitude and wonder those birds inspired.

I’m blown away by nature on a fairly regular basis, but occasionally she pulls out the stops and reminds me that, when it comes to awe, she has an almost infinite repertoire.