Existential lottery 1
Weird couple of weeks.
Two weeks ago my family and I drove to see an old friend in a town I used to work in. It was deeply existential. I left that job and that town in a hurry. At the time I was afraid we would be stuck there forever, and the job was only ok. I was too young for only ok. My wife’s work didn’t seem like there was room for her to go forward (which admittedly was my evaluation, and maybe not hers). And the town had a very depressing post-industrial midwest pall hanging over it. It wasn’t welcoming, there was little opportunity, and a lot of decline. Hard place to randomly plop down and live out the remaining 40 or 50 years of your life.
There were some really nice things about that town. The cycling friends were a whole lot of riding fun. The place has some beautiful elements to it. My wife had some good friends at work. I had some good friends at work.
So going back was like looking at a different life path, but with the benefit of hindsight. If I had not left, I would be farther along on one career path. I would have been able to spend time with my old friends there. But I would be much smaller minded and poorer for the experiences I have had. Because I left, I have traveled first class to Europe to do business. I have lived in Philadelphia and played with the big players. I have lived in Gettysburg and learned some history (finally). I have also been off and on happy drugs for years, and my weight/health has fluctuated — I attribute those last two things to stress. And the success I am having in my current position is a *direct* result of the experiences I would have missed had I stayed in place.
It’s tempting to look back and say I did the right thing. But I am pretty certain regardless of which path I took, I would tell myself it was the right one. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled.” At least that’s what I told myself. While a lot of life is looking back and wondering ‘what if,’ rarely can I so closely compare two different life trajectories over a 10 year period.
The other thing, is that our friend has her third round of brain cancer. It speaks for itself, but we had to see her before she starts her third round of treatment. My heart breaks for her. She’s a little fragile anyway, and I wish she didn’t have to endure this. So we spent the day telling old stories and visiting old places, eating Italian food and enjoying the moments.
But not just for her. Because things like this always bring home that the now is what we have. Period. Time is so ephemeral and most of it floats away without my ever noticing. I’m trapped on a hot airplane standing on the runway for an hour. I just want to go. But that’s one less hour of the limited hours I have. Even if it is annoying, it is *my* hour.
In a way, recognizing this makes the mundane sacred. I don’t know if there is a god or not. I hope there is just so I can party with my friends on the other side. But the sheer randomness and unlikeliness of existence which defines the problem of ontology and has frustrated humanity for the entirety of consciousness is overwhelming. I’m a father, my kids are teenagers. They are wonderfully intelligent and wildly diverse individuals. If I had married someone else, these wouldn’t be my kids. I’ve been married 20 years. If I had gone to a different college, I would have met a different woman. My parents, out of thousands of eggs and millions of sperms, I am what resulted (best not to dwell on that Freudian wierdness too long). If they had felt frisky on a different night, or a different hour of the day, or (ick) in a different position, it would have been somebody else. Somebody who looked like me, but not me. And play that all the way back to the big bang.
For all the control it feels like we have over our lives, things you have no control over have some of the largest influence. Who I am, who I married, who my children are — total randomness.
So my being here in this life in the first place? Kinda unlikely. Think of the DNA thing. A mother has 5000 shots at parenthood, and a father has many millions (1/month for her, millions/time for him). So there’s like a zillion to one shot that I would be me. I didn’t die from childhood illnesses, didn’t get myself killed as a teenager young man. I shouldn’t be here, and yet I am. It is overwhelming. Daily, I get reminders that many of my friends don’t get as far as I have. Finally none of us has an unlimited amount of time left.
This is the miraculous (or whatever) part of it.
Maybe time is like money. Let me think this through. As babies and children, we perceive that we have an unlimited trust fund. Hell at first we aren’t even aware of the trust. Then at some point we become aware of death and it begins to sink in that the trust is finite. That’s worrisome for a while, but we go back to assuming I got enough money not to worry now. At 45 however, with a list of friends and family who are already on the other side, well you can see the end of the trust fund. I realize that money is not unlimited.
So if I spend 3 dollars on starbucks, it tastes better than it did when I had enough money to never worry about it.
It makes the mundane sacred, in that I realize the preciousness and rarity of the hours. But it also drives me. If I want to achieve anything in this life, NOW is the time. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing now. Build an institute, start a company, fight for a promotion, make babies, adopt pets, travel to Europe, learn a couple songs on a new instrument.
The question becomes, what do you want to do with your precious, limited time? Live like you won the lotto, because in fact you did.