Thanksgiving is this week, and if you need something else to be thankful for, think of how lucky you, me, and almost everyone we know are. Consider the following…
Where Would You Be if There Was No “Here” Here?
For reasons that cannot currently be explained outside of religion and mythology, the universe exploded into existence several billion years ago. Before that, there was…well, no one knows what there was before, or even, indeed, if there was such a time as “before” (wrap your head around that idea for a while, then quit when it becomes too impossible).
Suffice it to say, to the best of our knowledge, space and time did not exist before the Big Bang. So you are lucky that whatever caused it—be that God, the “Big Crunch” of a previous universe, or a butterfly effect stemming from a seemingly insignificant action in another dimension—actually went off. You’re also lucky that the Big Bang kept on going, with the universe expanding outwards in all directions even to this present day, and did not just wheeze out—“the Big Piff”—and collapse in on itself like the Houston Texans’ season this year.
You are also lucky that out of the Big Bang, our galaxy, solar system, and planet formed and took their place where they are in relation to themselves and other objects in space. In a similar vein, you wouldn’t be around if our Sun were substantially larger or smaller; if our planet hadn’t survived eons of collisions with asteroids, planetoids, comets, and other space rocks; or if a black hole or rogue star had wandered through our cosmic neighborhood at any point in the far-distant past.
You’re also lucky that our planet supports life: 7 out of 8 in our solar system apparently don’t (sorry, old-school astronomy buffs, I’m not counting Pluto as planet, not that you would want to live there even if it was). For example, our immediate neighbors, Mars and Venus, are places so bad that they make an extended visit to Dundalk, MD seem like that “pleasure cruise” that Freddie Mercury sang about.
Mars can get down to -220 degrees F in the winter, has no surface water, and has only trace amounts of oxygen in its very thin atmosphere. By contrast, Venus has a very thick atmosphere—most of it carbon dioxide—resulting in a surface temperature of about 900 degrees F and atmospheric pressure almost 100 times that of Earth’s. Oh, and it also rains sulfuric acid there. Yeah, seriously.
On the other hand, Mars and Venus do have fewer Ravens fans than Dundalk
You’re lucky life progressed beyond the state of one-celled organisms—because for untold millions of years, invisible germs wriggling around in the oceans was all there was—and that life, the kind that eventually became us, anyway, made it through the hellish mass extinctions that have hit our planet many times. Everyone’s heard about the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period, but perhaps you missed the lesson on the Permian Extinction, which killed between 90% to 95% of all life on Earth and may have been brought about by massive lava flows, covering millions of square kilometers. Yay.
Speaking of dinosaurs, you’re damned lucky that they went extinct, because before their lethal appointment with the asteroid, they had a monopoly on power for about 160 million years, keeping our proto-mammalian ancestors down so hard, for so long, that The Man weeps in envy at the thought of it. You didn’t need to see Jurassic Park to realize that humans would be nothing more than People McNuggets for T. Rexes.
Once the dinos were out of the way, it was lucky that proto-humans evolved, and that whatever large carnivores that were roaming what became Africa didn’t develop a craving for proto-human burgers. Or that the proto-equivalent of the Black Death or the Ebola virus didn’t hit us all when there weren’t many of us and we were all fusterclucked together within walking distance of each other. Because that would have sucked some serious ass.
Big Deal, or No Big Deal?
Thousands upon thousands of species of plants and animals and one-celled organisms have lived on this planet, and yet only one of them—us—has developed the level of intelligence that has, for better or worse, led us to where we are now (we will assume that dolphins are not as intelligent as Douglas Adams postulated: I mean they eat sardines, so how smart can they be?).
It would really have been a kick to our collective junk if, say, anteaters had evolved to have big brains and opposable thumbs, and had used the same to pave over everything with asphalt and eliminate almost all other critters (including the ones that would eventually become us) so they could more efficiently manufacture those “ant-farm” kits that kids in the Fifties used to order from the backs of comic books.
Lucky, too, are you that your remote ancestors decided to develop farming, cities, alphabets, architecture, laws—all that stuff we call “civilization,” none of which was necessarily inevitable: aboriginal Australians maintained their original, hunter-gatherer lifestyle for about 40,000 years. 40,000. Wrap your skull around that: between 1300 and 2000 generations of native Australians spent their entire lives without iPods, HD TV, automobiles, Coca Cola, Saturday morning cartoons, bacon cheeseburgers, Major League Baseball, or even such trivial things as, say, indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, and antibiotics.
You’re also lucky, extremely lucky, I’d say, that your ancestors—all of them—survived long enough to reproduce. If your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather had been stillborn, or his dad had contracted a childhood lethal case of TB, or—going further back—a would-be progenitor had gotten himself trampled by a honked-off mammoth before he could make some cavebabies with his cavechick, you wouldn’t be here.
Unless your folks lived next door to each other their whole lives, you’re also extremely lucky that your parents met: in my case, my father travelled 5,000 miles from Bristow, Oklahoma to Heidelberg, Germany before meeting my mother. You’re lucky that your folks liked each other—what if she had been a Browns fan and he rooted for the Steelers?—and that they decided to get busy.
Marriages have ended over less (source)
Even with your parents meeting and mating at the time they did, the odds that you would be born you, the person you are, and not, say, any of your siblings, were extremely small, given the millions of sperm cells your father produced and the millions of possible combinations of DNA involved. Even if you’re an identical twin, you’re not the same person living in stereo, now are you?
You’re lucky that you weren’t miscarried. You’re lucky that your mother didn’t decide to abort you. You’re lucky that you didn’t die in infancy. During my daughter Beth’s birth, Joni’s placenta detached from the uterine wall and Beth went into life-threatening distress: fortunately, they were at a hospital, where the docs could do an emergency C-section and save both of them. Had they not been at a hospital, Beth (and possibly Joni) could have died.
You and Your Place in History
How great is it that you live in this time in history and were either born in or emigrated to a place where you can waste time reading this online instead of, say, toiling in the burning hot sun trying to eke out that nasty, brutish, and short life that Thomas Hobbes wrote about?
Thousands of generations of Aborigines, Goths, Romans, Hohokam, Geats, Wends, Huns, !Kung, Aztecs, and Melanesians, among many others, never got to sit in air-conditioned offices and houses, snarfing down Cheetos, slurping Starbucks, pretending to do some work while simultaneously updating one’s fantasy football roster and hitting Facebook twelve times a day.
Unless you’re visiting this page from Somalia or a country in a similar deathspiral, then, despite what you read in the newspapers and see on TV, you live in the best time in history for where you are. Yes, you got that right: this is the best time in history. The “good old days?” There never were any “good old days.” No age that has come before us has been as good as this one.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s consider some things. Have you lost your job, are you in debt, and/or are you just generally bummed about the economy? Joblessness and the fear of poverty sucks—but bear in mind that you could be living in Germany in 1923, where, thanks to hyperinflation, a glass of beer cost 4 billion marks.
Are you concerned about the high cost of health insurance? It’s been in the news a lot lately, and it’s not something to be taken lightly. But right now, today, approximately 22 million people—or about 5% of the adult population—in sub-Saharan Africa have AIDS, the single greatest cause of mortality there.
Worried about global warming? Every day since September 26, 1983 has been a bonus: on that date, an accidental nuclear war might have started were it not for the insight and cool head of Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov.
You live in an age of instant, worldwide communications where the knowledge of literally millions of books, articles, and papers can be accessed easily through a happy little thing called Google. The English literary giant Samuel Johnson was said to have read every book that had been printed to that point in history, an impossible task for anyone to do now, given the plethora of written material since the 1700’s.
Smallpox killed up to 500 million people in the 20th Century alone, yet I’ll bet you’ve never met anyone who has ever had it. I’m also reasonably sure you’ve never had rickets, scurvy, polio, rabies, diphtheria, or the bubonic plague. I remember very well talking to an old church lady who, as a young child, lost both her parents on the same day to Spanish influenza: she and her sister went to school in the morning, and when they came back, they were orphans. If you’ve had a medical problem corrected by an operation, you’re way ahead of almost all of the folks who lived in the days when “surgery” meant a hacksaw and biting down on a piece of wood.
I don’t know what you’re having for dinner, but you’re probably eating better than any of your ancestors. You’re probably taller than most of them because you have more protein in your diet, your bones are probably stronger thanks to Vitamin D in your milk, and your teeth are probably better thanks to fluoridated water. You might have more clothes and “stuff” than you know where to store them; your house would probably be the envy of any of your earlier family members, even if they were royalty (those castles were awful drafty). No matter how bad the school you went to, you probably have a vastly superior education to any of your ancestors.
Odds are good that you do have, or will own at some point, an automobile, affordable only by the rich before Henry Ford did his thing. You have leisure time, instead of toiling in factories for 18 hours a day like many people did—and still do (I am assuming that you have free time because you’re reading this). You have disposable income, instead of living in hand-to-mouth poverty like millions did—and still do. Your ancestors might have been slaves, but you probably never were—though millions of people today still are.
You—most of you, anyway—probably don’t wake up in the morning and wonder if you’re going to be murdered by your own species today in the ongoing war that has consumed the land around you: wherever you are is probably not as bad as, say, Stalingrad in 1942. You weren’t at Carthage, or Antietam, or the Somme. You probably weren’t at Hiroshima. You probably weren’t in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. The woods and farmlands near your home probably aren’t riddled with land mines. For most of us, war is only something we see on TV or the movies.
From a strictly impersonal, historical perspective, you and me and probably everyone you know have been given almost everything—relatively good health, wealth, education, opportunities, beneficent government—on a silver platter. I would wager that if they were still alive today, there would be not one Numidian, Mayan, or Mesopotamian who would not trade places and times with you in a heartbeat.
Getting Really Personal
“All that is well and good,” you might say, “but I was born in this time and place, just like everyone else I know, so don’t lecture me about ancient history, because it’s not relevant. And compared to other people around me, my life sucks.” Well, maybe you’re right. But maybe you have it better than you realize.
First off, whatever your situation is, at least you’re still here. The younger brother of a girl I went to high school with was murdered by a family friend. Another high school friend of mine drowned while rafting. The son of my stepfather’s business colleague was killed in a car accident. A guy I went to church with went off to college and got perished—hit by a truck—in his freshmen year.
I’ve gone to co-worker’s funerals. I’ve lost both sets of grandparents and my stepfather. My wife lost her father to COPD when he was in his early ‘60s—way too young, as far as I’m concerned. So if you’re still breathing, remember that there are plenty of folks you’ve met along the way who aren’t any more.
Not in the best of health? I’m willing to bet that someone you know is wondering if they’ll live to see their kids get married—or even if they’ll make it to next Christmas.
Does your job suck? Maybe it does, but I’m sure you know people who are struggling to pay their bills, if they even have a job at all, and would gladly take yours if they could.
Do you not like your house? Maybe you know a family who lost theirs to foreclosure. Or maybe they bought too much house back in the “boom” days and now they’re staggering under the weight of a monstrous mortgage.
Is your spouse ugly and fat, and your marriage boring? Someone you know envies what you come home to, because at least someone is there to have dinner with you.
I’m not saying that you’ve lived a charmed life, or that you don’t have problems, or that the problems you have are insignificant. You might be like some of the people I know who have had to deal with some pretty serious crap:
- Birth defects and crippling injuries;
- Cheating spouses and divorces;
- Child molestations and sexual assaults;
- Unwanted pregnancies and miscarriages;
- Bankruptcies and failed businesses;
- Layoffs and terminations;
- Arrests and jail time;
- Drug addiction;
- Dropping out of school;
- Abusive spouses;
- Delinquent children;
- Car accidents;
- Terminal illnesses;
- …And so on.
What I am saying is that 1) you’re lucky to even be here; and 2) that lots of other people had—and currently have—it worse.
You might not be living the “good life,” whatever that means, but there’s still a lot that’s good in your life. Think about it. Thank your lucky stars.