There’s only one thing to be thankful for – being alive. Sorry ‘everything else’.
Sure, everything else is nice too – health and love and family and good weather and running water and electricity and puppies and pizza – but all those things are a far, far distant second.
When we fail to remember how mind-bogglingly unlikely it is that we are alive, it causes huge distortions in perspective and errors in judgement. The good news is that we can almost instantly correct those errors in our thinking by remembering to be thankful for being alive, above all else.
Walking Between The Raindrops
The odds are so ridiculously stacked against any of us being alive that they round to zero in any reasonable calculation. We may choose to call that a blessing, a miracle, fate, luck, chance, or anything we like, but the fact is simple – it’s hilariously unlikely.
The odds have been calculated at around 1 in 102,685,000. That’s not 1 in 2,685,000. That’s a 1 followed by a string of zeros so long that if I typed them right now would stretch unbroken for more than a vertical mile. That’s a lot of scrolling, so we’ll skip that.
For comparison, the number of atoms in the known universe is estimated somewhere around 1080.
Put another way, it’s like 2 million people each holding a trillion-sided die and all rolling exactly the same number, for example 556,343,798,021.
Suffice it to say, if the kind of luck it has taken for you to exist were visible in your daily life, you’d win every possible lottery every single day, while continuously walking through rainstorms without getting wet, as you skipped through endless minefields without blowing up. But even as ridiculous and crazy as that scenario sounds, it would pale in comparison to the insane stack of lucky circumstances that have aligned to allow you to be breathing and reading this right now. Our own improbable existence is so far beyond our rational understanding that it’s not even possible to represent that kind of continuous crazy luck with an example.
And somehow we’re stunned when someone ‘overcomes the odds’. We’re shocked when they find a baby alive after an earthquake. The miracle of life! Yet our own existence is the walking, talking equivalent of vertically stacking a million needles tip to tip, and it goes essentially unrecognized.
The opposite is also true. When someone dies at a young age we declare it ‘unfair’. When someone is diagnosed with a genetic disease at almost any age, we call it unlucky. And any recurrence of misfortune befalling a person or group of people is seen as a borderline cursed existence. Those poor people in Haiti, how unlucky.
This is a huge error in perspective. Granted it’s born of compassion (or fear – ‘yikes, I hope it doesn’t happen to me’), so it’s understandable. But that doesn’t make it any less distorting in terms of our view of the world and our own lives.
The reality is this – we are impossibly, incomprehensibly fortunate to experience even a single moment of conscious life. This is not some grand statement of how precious life is (or is not). This is a statement of math. And for that reason alone it could be argued that it wouldn’t be all that foolish to spend our entire lives rolling around on the grass with a big stupid smile, like a happy dog on a summer day. Not the most productive way to spend our time, but given the reality of the situation, not an unreasonable way to show thankfulness for our insane luck.
Why Life is Fantastic
Here’s a big reason why life is fantastic:
It’s not death.
That’s a great perk.
Death is not necessarily bad per se. It’s a part of the cycle of life. Life doesn’t exist without it. We’re made up of the building blocks of dead things – dead stars, dead plants and animals, dead people. We’re part of the ultimate recycling program.
And we’ll never actually know death. We may be aware of the end of our lives, but we’ll never experience death. Death happens after consciousness, and appears to be pretty much nothingness – painless and peaceful like sleep or unconsciousness. And there’s nothing dark or scary about a nap now is there?
So while death is a natural part of the life cycle, it’s quite different from life and consciousness. Life is a brief flicker of light that reveals the surrounding forest. It’s almost a waking dream. It’s a few fleeting moments where the universe experiences itself through our eyes. Conscious life is rare, ultra-short, and temporary, and that makes it unique.
Why Life is Really Fantastic
Not only are we lucky enough to get a ticket to this exclusive short-run show called ‘being alive’, we are also – for the most part – given complete power to control our own experience. We don’t just watch, we shape the experience itself.
To have the level of control that we do, to dictate what happens to us and our experience of it all, is in a nutshell – nuts. It’s frankly too much to comprehend. And perhaps that’s why some people choose to step back from the controls a bit and allow life to just happen to them. It’s a big steering wheel to keep hold of.
And although we don’t have full say in everything, including how long this ride goes, the fact that we do have such control over our experience is remarkable. What’s more, with a little practice we can learn how to gain even more mastery over this experience, by developing mindfulness, wisdom, discipline, and a few other key skills.
We are given life, control over our lives, and the ability to make our lives even better if we wish. Simply amazing.
The Mistake We Make
The biggest mistake we make in all of this is not recognizing this amazing reality often or loudly enough.
Our first waking thought from the moment we open our eyes should be ‘Wow, I’m alive! Amazing!’. “Thank you for this joyous day” is the way one person once put it. That really has an impact on our attitude and how we plan to spend our time that day.
This is not happy-go-lucky positive rhetoric, quite the opposite. This is a call to clearly recognize the raw, hard statistical truth that our existence, our every breath, is impossibly unlikely. It’s completely fitting to frame our behaviors and thinking around that very real, concrete truth. Nothing soft and pollyanna here. The stunning statistics alone demand an appropriate response.
Reframing our thinking in this way allows us to put things in their due perspective.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re away on vacation and having one of those special days, where the weather is perfect, the food and drink is amazing, you watched a beautiful sunset, and everything is perfect. And then you lightly stub your toe. Does it ruin the experience? Of course not. It completely disappears in the larger context of the day. In fact, any number of ‘hiccups’ could happen on a day like that – a gust of wind blows your hat away, you get a stain on your favorite shirt – and they are easily eclipsed by the beauty and perfection of the experience overall. We recognize in that moment that we’re so lucky to be experiencing such a rare day, and all those little bothers seem inconsequential and slip away.
That is every day. We are on a lifelong vacation beyond all odds and anyone’s wildest imagination. And when we really understand that, and believe it, it makes all of the difficulties of life pale in comparison. We should welcome problems. We should smile when we feel pain. Hardship should remind us to feel even more alive and grateful.
We forget this. We skip right over it on a daily basis, taking it for granted that we are alive. That sets up each day as one where we wake up entitled to be alive, and feel disappointed or frustrated when the day doesn’t go exactly our way. We forget that it has already impossibly gone our way…to the order of 1 in 102,685,000.
We are owed nothing. We are promised nothing. We are impossibly lucky to be alive at any given moment. That’s the proper context in which to place everything that happens in our lives, and it should make our problems – even ‘big problems’ – feel like a lightly stubbed toe on an otherwise perfect day.
Be Thankful For One Thing, Everything
When we remember to be thankful for being alive, it lightens our stance. Even in tough or uncomfortable circumstances, remembering this can quickly put things in their place. It works for the big challenges in life, and certainly for all the small every day ones. It’s a recalibration button, available to press at any moment.
And when we practice being thankful for being alive, we learn to be thankful for the bad as well as the good. The pain and the pleasure. The rain and the sunshine. The light and the dark. When we give thanks for being alive, be it today or every day for the rest of our lives, it means we are thankful for the whole experience of life, and everything in it.