Friday, September 4, 2009

It's good to be lucky

We have always found the subject of luck a fascinating one. Chance plays such a large role in life; it’s hard to grapple with sometimes. The odds of things existing just as they have come to be are so mind-bogglingly long, it is hard to compute. Today is the end result of a long chain of events that had to happen just so or everything could be very different. As American paleontologist George Simpson elegantly put it:

“Man is the ultimate end of a twig. Even slight changes in earlier parts of the history would have profound cumulative effects on all descendent organisms through the succeeding millions of generations... Thus the existence of our present depends on a very precise sequence of causative events through some two billion years or more.”

In other words, that fact that we exist at all is a pretty damn lucky thing! A mere chance occurrence some billions of years ago and humanity as we know it never exists.

From a philosophical point of view, it also highlights a few absurd points. It shows how tenuous our existence is, how little control we have over how things come to be and just how limited we are in being able to understand what happens next.

We’re at the mercy of forces much larger than us, forces we don’t really understand and may never figure out. Every answer we find about how, for example, the world began or what lies at the rim of universe only brings more questions. It is a never-ending process.

There are lots of ways to deal with this. And we’re the only animals that have to deal with this. The German shepherd down the street doesn’t worry about what it is or what it will become. It just is. As Eric Fromm, a celebrated psychologist once put it:

“Man is the only animal that can be bored, that can be discontented, that can feel a need to be evicted from paradise. Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he tries to solve and from which he cannot escape.”

This reminds me of a line from Jim Harrison, where he writes “if only I had the genius of a cabbage or an onion to grow myself.” It’s a sort of plea for acceptance of things as they are. In another place he writes how “a tree by its nature seeks its future moment by moment.” We can find our way, too, by focusing on the present moment and living each experience day to day.

We are not saying we want to be a vegetable or a tree or a German shepherd. We are happy to have such problems as these to wrestle with, as Sisyphus was happy to push his rock, however futile the quest may be.

And this is, in fact, the absurd view. In a world devoid of meaning, the absurd man chooses to live his life anyway and does so with relish and passion. There is also the notion of acceptance of things as they are.

We would not want it any other way. In our view, it is good to be lucky, to have that element of chance. We are glad the future continues to frustrate our ability to penetrate it. The mystery is the thing. Life, like a book, draws you in because you don’t know what will happen next.

Let us be thankful that our future continues to outwit us and revel in the absurd nature of our existence!

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