American in Spain


September 7, 2007

I'm so happy to have been born! I'm going to make an attempt to explain a philosophy of life that I've been developing in my adult years. Not so much as an attempt to try and convert you...more so that I can refer people back here when explaining my reasons for certain views on issues.

Thinking back, although the seeds of this idea were sown long before, they didn't really begin to sprout until I went to Denmark. In 1999, I left college for a semester and spent 6 months living in Denmark. In the Toronto airport, on the way to Scandinavia, I had the idea to keep a journal of my trip. No one suggested it to me. It just seemed like a good idea. My principal audience was my future self, looking back on my journey and what I, in my naivety, found strange and wondrous about the experience. Looking back, I must have been influenced by my maternal grandfather's habit of keeping travel journals on his trips and the joy he derived from reading them years later.

On a side note, my journal, through the help of my father, ended up getting posted to the internet on more-or-less weekly basis, thereby becoming what we know today as a web log, or "blog". How many people do you know that were blogging about their life experiences in 1999?

It was in writing this journal that I came to view my life as a story about stuff that was happening to me and about things that I was doing. It was this method of introspection, seeing myself as an outside observer would, that allowed me to see parallels in my life with the lives of everyone else, particularly -- and this is important -- with people in history. When you have a crush in high school, you don't realize that your grandfather felt the same way about your grandmother and a dozen other girls before her. Or that you're experiencing the same emotion that Abraham Lincoln or Napoleon or Da Vinci or Julius Caesar also experienced. It's obvious if you think about it, but you don't. Not until you're observing yourself as a character in a story. I realized that I was a participant in The Human Experience, filled with ups and downs, sickness and health, etc. etc. etc.

Ever since that epiphany, I've been happy. Even when I'm sad, I'm happy to be experiencing the sadness. Even amidst the pain and tears of a broken heart is the thought that, "So this is the emotion that has inspired great poems and songs and stories for centuries! Cool!"

It was with this attitude towards life that I came across this passage in a book by Richard Dawkins called Unweaving The Rainbow (amazon).

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Woah! Before I read this, in my happiness, I was just like a rich kid, contentedly playing with all my rich kid toys, never thinking about how there might be others less fortunate than me. But this really put things in perspective. It made me grateful on top of being happy!

In case you're wondering, Dawkins goes on to explain, more eloquently than I can, that this is not a case against abortion and does not mean that Every Sperm is Sacred and that we should all be reproducing like Catholic bunnies.

And, as if existing as a living human wasn't fantastic enough, he goes on to explain what a joy it is to be alive right now:

The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, 'the present century'. Interestingly, some physicists don't like the idea of a 'moving present', regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.

In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book. I am equally lucky to be in a position to write one, although I may not be when you read these words. Indeed, I rather hope that I shall be dead when you do. Don't misunderstand me. I love life and hope to go on for a long time yet, but any author wants his works to reach the largest possible readership. Since the total future population is likely to outnumber my contemporaries by a large margin, I cannot but aspire to be dead when you see these words. Facetiously seen, it turns out to be no more than a hope that my book will not soon go out of print. But what I see as I write is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.

You may read more excerpts here.

I honestly believe that, if all of my family, friends, and loved ones were killed, my house and money taken away, and I was stricken with illness like good old jobless Job, I could still find it in myself to be happy to be alive. I'd be lying, broken and beaten, at the foot of Maslow's pyramid, but I'd be experiencing life.

As a result of this philosophy, I have no reason to fear the lack of an afterlife. Death is just the end of an exciting journey that we are lucky enough to take. And once you lose the fear that there is no afterlife, all -- and I mean all -- the attraction of unprovable religious beliefs melts away.

So be happy! Even when you're having a bad day, rejoice in what an incredible lottery you've won to be able to have a bad day at all! I know I do.