“Life itself is the gift…” — Forrest Church on gratitude, with a few words from Joseph Brodsky, too

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Calculating the odds

The theme over at Anecdotal Evidence today is gratitude.  It brought to mind an article I read in Stanford Magazine a few years back by Forrest Church, author of Love and Death, who at that time was struggling with a particularly virulent form of esophageal cancer.

Under such circumstances, many ask, “Why me?”  “What did I do to deserve this?”  But Church reckoned differently.  We forget, he said, “that we did nothing to deserve being placed in the way of trouble and joy in the first place. The odds against each one of us being here this morning are so mind-staggering that they cannot be computed.”

“Beating the odds, I slowly began to realize, had nothing to do with the stakes of the mortality table,” he wrote.  “The truth of the matter struck me with tremendous force. I’d beaten the odds already, won the house on a zillions-to-1 wager 58 years before, the moment I was born.”  By his own admission, the odds “cannot be computed,” yet he tried:

“Consider the odds more intimately. Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception. Right then, the odds were still a million to 1 against your being the answer to the question your biological parents were consciously or unconsciously posing. And that’s just the beginning of the miracle. The same unlikely happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations. Going back 10 generations, this miracle must repeat itself 1,000 times—1¼ million times going back only 20 generations. That’s right. From the turn of the 12th century until today, we each have, mathematically speaking, approximately 2½ million direct ancestors. This remarkable pyramid turns in upon itself, of course, with individual ancestors participating in multiple lines of generation, until we trace ourselves back to when our ur-ancestors, the founding couple, whom each one of us carries in our bones, began the inexorable process that finally gave birth to us all, kith and kin, blood brothers and sisters of the same mighty mystery.

“And that’s only the egg and sperm part of the miracle. Remember, each of these ancestors had to live to puberty. For those whose bloodline twines through Europe—and there were like tragedies around the globe—not one of your millions of direct forebears died as children during the great plague, for instance, which mowed down half of Europe with its mighty scythe.”

Church considers his favorite etymology: “human, humane, humanitarian, humility, humble, humus. Dust to dust. And in between, erupting into consciousness—into pain and hope and trust and fear and grief and love—the miracle of life.” He concludes that “without even trying, you’ve already won the only race that really matters. Unconsciously, yet omnipresent, you ran the gauntlet of stars and genomes to assume your full, nothing less than miraculous, place in the creation. Being alive to love and hurt, to fail and recover, to prove your grit and show compassion, that is life’s true secret.”

For me, Joseph Brodsky‘s statement on gratitude is unmatched.  His early poem “1 January 1965” (translated by George Kline):

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same —
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your lone bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

What prompts this melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death —
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gift at all.
It’s clear that you are now to old
to trust in good saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
– But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realize:
your life is a sheer gift.


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2 Responses to ““Life itself is the gift…” — Forrest Church on gratitude, with a few words from Joseph Brodsky, too”

  1. The Universe Pictures » Blog Archive » The Universe Pictures | Life, the Universe, and Everything Texture… or in other words, 42 Says:

    […] The Book Haven » Blog Archive » “Life itself is the gift … […]

  2. Frances Madeson Says:

    How wonderful to see Forrest here in this context. You found the best of him, Cynthia, and raised it up for all to see. That’s your gift. And it’s a rare and beautiful one. Thank you. I’m going to send this to some poet friends at All Souls, who will especially appreciate the juxtaposition.

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