Today, I turned 32. I have plenty of thoughts on what this means. I don’t view age in the same way that we are programmed to view age: as an immutable march towards decay and obsolescence. I won’t be botoxing anything, nor will I be slowing down any time soon. In fact, I can do more this year than I could when I was in my socially defined “prime.” But that’s not what this post is about. This particular birthday, I’m far away from home, in a place with none of the distractions that I have come to embrace in my normal life. I am on my emergency medicine rotation somewhere deep in the Navajo Nation, where red rocks spring from green ground in contortions that defy the imagination. Being out of my element, and allowed a period of self analysis and introspection, I began to wonder more purposefully about something that I have long wondered: What the fuck am I doing with my life?
This isn’t a mid life crisis. It is a personal call to action. I’ve done plenty of “impressive” things in a variety of contexts over the past few years. The list is just a list. Boring. Words on a page. And in the past. But these things don’t even begin to touch on what really matters. What is my true potential? More directly, what am I doing to fulfill my potential? 24 hours in a day. 1,440 minutes. 21,500 statistically unlikely breaths, give or take. How many of those have meaningful purpose?
Our individual and collective existence is what Bob Ross would have called a “Happy Accident.” Statisticians estimated the odds of any one of us coming into consciousness at about 1 in 400 trillion. Buy a lottery ticket. Another guy did the calculations and the number he arrived at was more like 1 in 10 to the power of 2,685,000. That is a 10 followed by 2,685,000 zeroes. So, for the sake of simplicity and to avoid statistical controversy, we can just put the odds of existing somewhere between those two figures. Regardless, staggering. These numbers represent your likelihood of taking your first breath. They say nothing of surviving to adulthood. The religious would call it miraculous. Personally, I call it an accident. But that doesn’t in any way diminish the importance of this accident. If you ever spent a bored afternoon mesmerized by Bob Ross as he brought a landscape to life, every single one of those little “Happy Accidents” made his painting better. The man would just flow. Life seems to do the same, no matter how much we thrash about or resist.
So here I am. As unlikely as it may be. And I find myself squandering the minutes of my day more than I use them. Not every minute. But more than I know I should. I procrastinate. And I placate myself with insta-pleasures like TV and food and my cell phone. I wasn’t like this when I was 21. When I was 21, I was hungry. Those on the outside looking in still tell me that I’m hungry, that I’m doing enough. But the truth is, hunger makes you and others uncomfortable. Hunger requires discontent. And the rain of discontent creates ripples in everyone’s pond.
I am not unhappy. In fact, I am probably measurably happier than I ever have been in my life. Because at a certain point in the last year or so I decided to take deliberate steps in creating a habit of happiness. But I am discontent. I see the gap between my potential and who I really am. And I find myself wanting to close that gap. Badly. As if I was 21 again.
At 32 I have sharper tools and an expanded ability to act on my ideas, if only I could overcome the resistance within. Sometimes I do. Most of the time I don’t. I don’t fight as hard as I did when I was 21. And while many would relegate this to the effect of aging, I hold myself personally responsible.
Things in this world have meaning only because we give them meaning. That is exactly the point of the phrase that starts with, “Beauty is in…” I don’t have to finish it. We all know the rest. So well, in fact, that the sentiment might be inborn, part of our DNA. We, Happy Accidents, endow our world with the meaning that it possesses. Strange sentence. An oxymoron perhaps. It has been said that there is wisdom in the oxymoron. Apparently, they disentangle logic to reveal some splinter of truth. You figure it out.
Setting aside, for a moment, the religious/creation debate. We Are. And if We Are by way of accident in a cold Universe, indifferent to our struggle, then still, We Are. This, to many, is a worst case scenario. But this cold, indifferent Universe operates on a set of rules. And those rules say that our existence is infinitesimally unlikely. Yet, here We Are. Worst case isn’t such a horrible scenario, after all, but it continues…
It’s not just that We Are. We are and we have Ability. Every one of us has the Ability to create or destroy in a variety of ways, on levels that inspire awe. We have this potential to shape the world, to endow it with meaning. Actions and words can heal or kill, create and destroy. But, instead we find ourselves content with passive and fleeting gratification, sometimes until its too late. And that’s a shame. Because we have opportunity and we have purpose. Both the opportunity and the purpose are to make something of this Happy Accident. The details are up to you and virtually without restriction.
You’ve felt it inside of you. That nagging feeling that you could be doing more, that you could be something more. A million dollar idea. A latent, unpursued talent. Or a call to relieve the suffering of others. All of these get buried beneath the mausoleum of insignificance that we each erect ourselves, day by day, layer by layer. Even the Egyptians would be impressed with the immensity of our constructs. This celebrity did this, that new phone does that, there’s a person at work that irritates me, ad infinitum, until we can barely see a faint glow of the illumination present inside all of us. This complacent satisfaction with the meaningless is what we must fight to endow our unlikely existence with purpose
Faint as it may be, the light is still there, waiting for each of us to use our Ability to tear down what we’ve built, unleashing the true genius of our nature. Tearing anything down is an act of destruction. But destruction can be a sublime act of creation.
You and I are both Happy Accidents. This moment, not tomorrow, not next week, not when school is over, or when the kids go to college, but this moment we can endow ourselves with meaning by resisting the urge to suppress our light. With a bit of effort, our accidental existence could mean salvation for someone who is suffering, inspiration for the uninspired, a brief moment of insight for the outblind. You have Ability. Do not deny it.
Even as I write these words, the voice in my head questions, “Who am I to think I know anything, let alone tell everyone else?” But still I type. Because we all die. And I would rather 32 to 33 look more like 19 to 23 than 24 to 32… if you can follow what I’m saying. It will take courage. And I will have to silence that voice in my head innumerable times. It is said that everyone dies two deaths. Once when they take their last breath. And again the last time someone ever utters their name. I couldn’t give a shit about that second death. Because at the moment of the first, I will be the only person with complete access to the full details of my life. And I only desire to see that I used the resources at my disposal to realize the immensity of my own true potential. For my potential is vast. As is yours.
I have written this before. But it bears repeating. And this won’t be the last time that I say or type these words.. A somewhat random individual in my life, a paramedic with whom I have spent a sum total of less than 16 hours, once sensed my struggle and paraphrased Hellen Keller to help me gain some perspective: “You benefit the world nothing by pretending to be smaller than you really are.”
If you feel a bit uncomfortable reading these words, good. You’re alive. Sit with it for a moment. Or two. Or three. Don’t reach for a distraction. Your cell phone will still be in your pocket in ten minutes. And the bag of chips in the pantry isn’t going to eat itself. If you sit, discomfort will be allowed to expand to discontent. And discontent to a storm. There will be ripples in your pond, as the rain falls. But there’s this moment, after a storm, no matter how tempestuous, when everything smells fresh and the dirt has been washed off and the world is renewed. And you might notice the water level in your pond has risen, ever so slightly. Ponds that overflow their confines become lakes, then give way to streams and rivers, feeding into oceans. You are a vast Happy Accident amidst an ocean of at least 7 billion others whose existence was equally as unlikely as yours. Don’t try to pretend otherwise. Don’t be any smaller than you actually are. These moments we have mean way too much to waste. But only if we make them.