In a song called Beautiful Boy John Lennon once told us: ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ If you look back on your life so far can you see a certain truth in this? I can. My life has not been a nice linear progress, from great promise to great fulfilment, and I guess yours hasn’t either?
When we are young everything seems possible, all options seem open. We weigh the various possibilities we have and we make decisions. We even make plans. I’ll take this job because then after that I can move on to that. And ‘that’ will be great. But it doesn’t usually happen like that. Every single day of our lives we make decisions, we have to make decisions. Most of our decisions seem mundane; indeed they seem literally ‘everyday’. But they are not. Many years ago you might have been planning on a quiet night at home, but then a friend rings completely out of the blue and asks you to come with him/her to a concert or just for a drink. You had no intention or plan to do this, but after a bit of thought you think: ‘Why not?’ So off you go and just by ‘chance’ you met your future spouse, and because of that you are where you are now. If your friend hadn’t called you, or you had said you’d rather stay at home as you had planned, you wouldn’t be where you are today. So much for plans! Every moment of every day we make seemingly trivial or innocuous decisions and every one of them (or almost) will blow our well-laid plans out of the water. If you doubt this just ask yourself the question: ‘Is where I am now, where I live, who I’m married to, what I am doing, how wealthy I am… was that my plan twenty years ago?’
So life is mostly chance, as well as, as we get older, the sound of doors slamming shut behind us.
This much I think we all know. But what about the chance of us coming into existence at all? From a probability point of view, when we consider it, the chances that we came to be at all are so infinatestably small than they are almost zero. This doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. If you are reading this then you do. In fact the probability that you exist is one, or 100%. But the chance of you having ‘come in existence’ is a different thing.
You are a particular bundle of DNA. The first miracle is that if any one of you countless ancestors over the millennia had made slightly different decisions you wouldn’t exist. Just take the case of your parents. If they hadn’t by chance met at a particular time and place, you wouldn’t exist. And what led them to be in the same place at the same time? What was the probability of that? If they hadn’t liked each other then you wouldn’t exist. If they hadn’t got married (presuming they did) you wouldn’t exist. And so on. In fact your existence if not just dependent on all these things, it is also dependent on them deciding to have sex on a particular night – possibly your mother might have had a headache! But there are millions and millions of sperm in every act of sexual intercourse, and just one of those millions made you. If it had been another sperm then you wouldn’t be here. Somebody else might have been created but it wouldn’t be you!
And this is the case for every single one of your ancestors. I might return to the mathematics of this on another occasion. But for now it is I hope pretty obvious that the fact of you or I coming into existence at all is so tiny it is almost a miracle.
And what do we do with this miracle? As Shakespeare once put it in Macbeth:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Yes we strut and fret, and we busy ourselves with making other plans.
This isn’t just a thing that we know now or even that Shakespeare first told us. People have known this since homo sapiens have been able to think. That is what homo sapiens means – thinking people.
Back in the eighth century the English monk the venerable Bede told a story of the conversion to Christianity of the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin. The papal envoy Paulinus wanted to convert the pagan Edwin to Christianity. One of the king’s advisers told the king:
Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.
We are indeed like a sparrow passing through a warm and light hall. That is our life. We don’t know what came before and we sure as hell have no idea what will come when we are gone. But we enjoy the warmth of life when we are here. Unless, of course, we spend our time strutting and fretting and making lots of other plans.
We all do this.
This fleeting miracle of our life, this sparrow passing through the hall from darkness to darkness, first expressed by so wonderfully by Bede, has been reworked in English literature ever since. Wordsworth put it thus:
Man’s life is like a Sparrow, mighty King!
That–while at banquet with your Chiefs you sit
Housed near a blazing fire–is seen to flit
Safe from the wintry tempest. Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither it goes. Even such, that transient Thing,
The human Soul; not utterly unknown
While in the Body lodged, her warm abode;
But from what world She came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown;
This mystery if the Stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed!
And in more recent times the Irish poet Seamus Heaney has offered his rendition of ‘The Sparrow’s Tale’:
It looked like a star, bent low,
Below the horizon by the wood’s edge.
A wedge of light from a window high in a barn
At night it would glow and I would feel its pull,
Pulling me away from the dark in which I lived,
(A dark as dark as the deepest bowl in a beech tree trunk)
Pulling me away from the cold and the snow.
I held that shining star in the corner of my beady black eye
And one day took the plunge and flew head long through that gap
Where the light shines, where the feasting humans herd.
And then I was there, flying between beams like branches held up
By bolt upright timbers like trunks reaching up
To the twiggy rafters inside was lined inside
Like the outside with gleaming threads of golden straw
How my feathers shone! I couldn’t stop singing. But strange,
Humans living in upturned nests. I gasped in surprise to see them
Flocking there and when they me espied their twittering ceased.
Mouths hung open like hungry fledglings. The fire
Pinned their crackling shadows high upon the lime-washed wall.
I took in the prickly air and the wide eyes that followed my excited flight,
The satiated dogs that barely moved from the flickering hearth.
And then it all began, such squawking and clucking
And the clattering of steely-knives stabbing the table
Impaling all manner of meats lost in a cloud
Full of feathers from startled chickens. One human barked
And leapt upon a perch on the fully laden table
Scattering crumbs, (such rich pickings!) I was tempted to rest
And to take some nourishment there but an arm swished
To snatch me from the pungent air mid-flight up turning
A great plateful of precious water that splashed and showered the
One who gleamed with such an exotic plumage that the droplets
Sparkled like jewels in a crown of light. I held that moment
Struck in awe. This was for surely a nest for the gods, I was able
To reflect before returning from whence I came.
Brief is my life and a humble sparrow has no place at this table.
That we exist at all is almost a miracle. That we strut and fret is just human. So let’s be like the sparrow and enjoy the warmth and light while we are here. Before our dusty death.