You’re Incredibly Lucky to be Alive

My parents met in Cuba. My mother Jenny Weinreb was a refugee, escaping Nazi Germany in 1939 (alone on a German boat at age 13!) to Lisbon (where my Aunt Eva was married with two baby twins), and from there to a British refugee camp in Jamaica (1942?), and finally to Cuba in 1944. My father Arthur Wilzig left Poland in 1936 straight to Cuba (where a large expatriate community had established itself in 1926 after widespread Polish pogroms).

They married in 1946 and I was conceived in Cuba in 1948, but born in May 1949 in the U.S. where they had immigrated because “there was no future Jewish life in Cuba”, as my mother explained to me decades later. Thus, I definitely qualified as an “international baby” from several perspectives.

How often have we heard others say that they’re “lucky to be alive” because they just missed being killed in some accident? Indeed, Judaism has a special prayer for someone escaping danger: “gomel”.

But this is missing the main point: EVERYONE in the world is unbelievably lucky to be alive! From several standpoints.

First, although we do not know for sure if there is life anywhere else in the universe, it is clear that the chances of life “evolving” on any one planet are very, very small (but as there are trillions upon trillions of stars and planets in the universe, overall the probability is that there is “life” elsewhere: see “Drake’s Law”). You and I happen to be living on a planet where this did happen – the chance of that is less than winning the national Powerball Lottery. So thank your lucky star (pun intended)!

Second, in many cases the chances of your parents meeting when they did is also quite small (notwithstanding the occasional “marrying one’s high school sweetheart”). In the course of a person’s youth and young adulthood, we will meet – even superficially – a few thousand people, among the hundreds of millions that they could have met, and of them the thousands they reasonably could have married. And if they had met someone else, you wouldn’t be here! Doubly lucky.

Third, and something of a head scratcher, is the most important “lucky event” of them all. In a nutshell, whereas your mother dropped one ovum each month down her fallopian tubes to be (potentially) impregnated, your father’s ejaculate contained close to one hundred million (100,000,000!) sperm. So, think about this: if the specific sperm that impregnated your mom’s egg had been beaten in that swimming race by one other among the “99,999,999” sperm, would YOU be alive at all? Probably not – just someone pretty similar to you (at least, similar to when you were a newborn).

Never thought of that, did you? And that’s the point. Life is largely a matter of attitude and perspective. You can look at your cup that’s missing a few drops on top, or at the cup that’s brimming with life (yours). I am certainly aware that this is not the way people usually think about their life, but that’s my point: as human beings, we are capable of shifting our viewpoint once we look at the mirror straight on, instead of from the side. Some people don’t need to do this – their natural predisposition (what is usually called “attitude”) is to be positive and optimistic. Others are naturally pessimistic, seeing more night than day. And then there’s the broad middle who can go either way, depending…

On what? On their social circle; on their socio-economic status; on their social happiness (quality of marriage; relationship with their kids; etc); and dare I say it? On how they consume media information.

No, I am not about to partake in modernity’s national sport: media-bashing. Actually, the “people” (that’s you and me) are at fault. When was the last time you read this headline (change the country name as you wish): “Yesterday, 8 million Israelis had an Uneventful Day.” Never. Because we, the readers, listeners, and viewers, want to get “bad news” – almost the only kind that we consider “news” at all.

Why? For that we have to go back several hundred thousand years (or even millions). All creatures on earth – and certainly evolving humans who were not particularly strong or fast – had (and have) to be on constant lookout for danger that could annihilate them: back then, tigers and human enemies; today, technology (e.g. cars) and human enemies. Thus, danger-sniffing is planted deeply in our genes. And what constitutes “danger” (socially and not only personally) is not only the usual stuff (plane crashes; war breaking out) but also – even increasingly – unusual stuff that we are not familiar with. Flying machines? (Early 20th century) People changing their sex?? (Mid-20th century) Robots building cars faster than humans can??? (Late 20th century) Designer babies?!?! (21st Century).

The media – old (“legacy”) and new (“digital”) – are doing an increasingly better job of ferreting out each and every “potentially dangerous”/ unusual item of information from around the world. And as we absorb more and more of this (with the occasional respite through sports scores and fashion fads), our perception of the world is that things are going to hell in a basket faster than ever. Ah, nostalgia: “when I was growing up, the world was a better place”. Baloney. As a matter of fact, there is less violence in the world today (per capita) than ever before in human history! (Don’t take my word for this; read Steven Pinker’s The Better Nature of Our Angels.)

So we “moderns” are caught in a paradoxical situation: the better things get (objectively), the worse they seem (subjectively). The solution is not to avoid the media (we do want to know what real dangers lie out there). Rather, it is to choose wisely which media to consume – and then understand that 99% of what is happening in the world is positive, precisely what is NOT found in the media (because we don’t want to read “good news”).

Freed from the shackles of informational negativity, we can then more realistically work on developing a more positive and optimistic attitude towards the world – micro (ours personally) and macro (society and the world at large).

Coda: the latest research shows that people with a generally positive attitude have, on average, a lifespan that’s a few years longer than those with ingrained (or acquired) negativity. So not only are the former “lucky to be alive”, but by appreciating that fact they actually live longer – and that’s not a matter of luck.

So here’s my final “you’re really lucky booster”. Remember what I said about your parents’ egg and sperm? Now take that back every generation of your personal forebears! In other words, if any procreation act of any of your grand/grand/grand(etc)parents had a different sperm win that specific impregnation race to the ovum, you would not be here (or anywhere, ever)! So just this one, repeated, “generational” piece of good fortune should be enough to get you to count your blessings every minute of your day. 

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