In a humorous address to a graduating high school class, the writer Bill Bryson said:
By the most astounding stroke of luck an infinitesimal portion of all the matter in the universe came together to create you and for the tiniest moment in the great span of eternity you have the incomparable privilege to exist. (*)
Bryson suggests to the students that they take a moment to remember this from time to time. Good advice, I would say. He goes on to write:
Whatever else you do with your life, nothing will remotely compare with the incredible accomplishment of having managed to get yourself born.
I find this second sentiment rather intriguing. As egos, we would like to take credit for accomplishments – to be able to say, “I did that.” But “I” obviously had no hand in bringing this self into being. Would it not be more honest if instead of speaking of “my mind,” we spoke of “the mind that imagines my existence”? Whatever accomplishments I may wish to take credit for, they are all contingent upon that “astounding stroke of luck” that brought forth this body with its brain, this brain with its “mind,” this mind that imagines “me.” Is it not the case that all accomplishments, whatever, are the accomplishments of Nature, the ultimate source of this astounding luck?
In a poem that came to me today via email, David Whyte writes:
You are not
a troubled guest
on this earth,
you are not
amidst other accidents
you were invited
from another and greater
than the one
you have just emerged.
The sentiment here echoes Bryson’s, though I prefer Bryson’s “astounding stroke of luck” to Whyte’s “you were invited.” Yet, against the great mystery of our being here at all, such concepts as luck, accident, and invited are just the passing of wind. We simply don’t know why we are here. But we are here. We are now in the light of this day that we call life. Soon enough we will hear the distant refrain of Taps, calling us back to the endless night.
Along with the pieces by Bryson and Whyte, within the last twenty-four hours I also came across the following remark from Rudolph Otto:
Thus, according to Schleiermacher, I can only come upon the very fact of God as the result of an inference, that is, by reason to a cause beyond myself to account for my ‘feeling of dependence.
While I would substitute the word “Nature” for Otto’s word “God,” this piece joins the two above in pointing to the fact that our being here is utterly in dependence upon something other than our self – whether we call it Nature, God, the Tao or Whatnot. And as Otto goes on to point out, it is in the direct apprehension of this mysterious fact of our utter dependence and contingency that we experience the “numinous,” which Otto proclaims is the experience essential to religion and spirituality.
From a practical point of view, this is all rather useless. (And what is the worth of “the practical point of view” from the perspective of “the great span of eternity?”) But, again, I think that Bryson’s suggestion that we remember it “from time to time,” is good advice. I might go further and suggest that we deeply contemplate it from time to time.
As an older person’s who’s “tiniest moment” is rapidly coming to its conclusion, I find myself contemplating it rather frequently. I do not believe that any aspect of my individual existence, my “self,” will continue after I die. Yet I do not find sadness, but rather joy in this contemplation. That I should die is as it should be. That Nature should continue “to invite” new beings into its brief daytime, is also as it should be.
From Nature we come forth, through Nature we are sustained, to Nature we return. That we are ever separate from Nature is just an imagining in the mind that Nature brings forth. In India, they call that imagining Maya.
We humans now understand a great deal about Nature; but as to why Nature possesses this power of bringing forth beings like us, that is a mystery. Indeed we may well call it The Great Mystery. To the extent that I refer my identity to this Great Mystery, I identify with that which will continue beyond my individual death. To the extent “I” identify with that little act of the mind’s imagination that goes by the word “me,” I identify with that which will surely end.
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Note: The first of the three works quoted are from: (1) the chapter “An Address” in I’m a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson; (2) the poem “What To Remember When Waking,” from the book The House of Belonging, by David Whyte; (3) chapter 3 of The Idea of the Holy, by Rudolph Otto.