This is a republishing of the Shoulders of Giants newsletter.
👨🏫 Topic: The opportunity to live is a miracle
🔍 Quote: Annie Dillard on how we spend our lives
📜 Passage: Mark Manson on the Backwards Law
Zoom out of your life for a second. Away from your work deadlines, personal goals, friends and family, and everything else going on in your world.
Think about how you are a life in the universe. The fact you’re here is a phenomenon.
The odds of you being alive are 1 in 10^2,685,000. That is a 10, followed by 2.7 million zeroes.
If you can’t wrap your head around how crazy that is, think of it like this:
Let’s say two million people (the population of Houston, Texas) got together, each to roll a dice with a one trillion-sided die. The probability of you being alive is the same odds as all 2 million people rolling their die and each one landing on the same number—for example, 550,343,279,001.
It’s literally a miracle that you exist. Congratulations, you won the ride of a lifetime.
Besides the hilarious odds of us being here, life is precious for another reason: death.
For winning the ultimate lottery, we get life and the assurance of death. It’s a terrifying dilemma we have to live with.
But death is the price of life. It’s not our choice to pay it, just as it wasn’t our choice to be born.
It’s also what makes life valuable. Lisel Mueller says, “What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious.”
Like a ride at an amusement park, spending an eternity on one ride isn’t fun. Although it sucks when the ride ends, doesn’t the experience of riding it make that sad feeling worth it?
The enormous role that chance plays in our existence also makes death a privilege in a way. Because to die means you got to live.
It means two million people rolled their trillion-sided die, and they all landed on your number, letting you take a turn at living.
Most people will never die because they are never going to be born. Richard Dawkins says the fact that we’re going to die means we’re the lucky ones. He says how dare we whine about returning to the place we came from and where most lives have never left.
Having sorrow for death means having sorrow for life. Resenting death is wishing to have not participated in the beauty of aliveness.
Thinking of this makes me feel like we’re in a private club—me, you, and every other person on Earth.
Everyone you see at work, at school, in traffic, at the gym, at the grocery store, on social media, etc., has made it to life by the skin of their teeth. We are all taking part in this exclusive event.
Without trying to sound corny, we really are all in this together. This is everyone's first time living.
This makes the small stuff in life feel EXTREMELY small. It makes you think about what really matters to you and what’s worth giving time to. What fights are worth fighting? What ambitions are worth pursuing? What annoyances are worth spending energy on?
It should also make you feel special. It’s like we’re all celebrities. Why us? Why did we get the fortune of being born and getting a turn to experience life?
But as special as I feel, I don’t confuse it with me being significant. I keep in mind that this gift (life) is a temporary experience. It’s a joy ride. And when it’s over, we have to go back to wherever we came from.
There have been about 100 billion humans in Earth's history, and there will be 100 billion more after us. It’s not our world. It’s just our turn.
Two million people rolled their trillion-sided die, and they all landed on your number. Life’s doors opened, and your timer started as soon as you walked in. Now you have to make the most of it before your turn is over.
How we spend our days is how we spend our lives
- Annie Dillard
Being busy and being distracted are decisions.
It’s easy to coast through life day after day, showing up for obligations, but never for yourself.
Don’t confuse living with existing.
This is a total mind-fuck. So I'll give you a minute to unpretzel your brain and maybe read that again:
Wanting a positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience. It's what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as "the backwards law"—the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place.
The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make. The more you desperately want to be sexy and desired, the uglier you come to see yourself, regardless of your actual physical appearance. The more you desperately want to be happy and loved, the lonelier and more afraid you become, regardless of those who surround you. The more you want to be spiritually enlightened, the more self-centered and shallow you become in trying to get there.
As the existential philosopher Albert Camus said: "You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
- Mark Manson