Most of you have seen the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which airs so frequently at this time of year. More on that in a moment. But for now, the word “wonderful” is most commonly understood to mean “really great.” But the word “wonderful” actually means “filled with wonder.”
Who among us can understand the incredible mystery of his own life? And not merely considered in itself, but also how it interacts with the lives of others and the events of this world? Why are we here now? Why do we meet and know the people we do? How does our life affect that of others, not just in the obvious ways but also the hidden ways unknown to us?
Imagine that one day you stayed late at work rather than taking your usual commuter bus. Your open seat caused two people to meet, who later married and had three children, one of whom will grow up to discover the cure for cancer. This is something you will never know, but God does. Maybe another day you drove a little slower than the driver in back of you wished, but your slower pace meant that your irritated tailgater was not in an intersection at just the moment he would have been killed in a horrible accident had he kept up his pace. I know you may think these are trivial examples, but consider the mystery of each moment and all the “alternate universes” that would result if even a small change took place in our actions!
Our lives are mysteriously intertwined. We have almost no idea how even the littlest things we do cause enormous ripples and chain reactions that affect dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people from moment to moment. What if I never wrote this post and you never read it but instead were reading something else right now (whether good or bad)? The possibilities are almost endless as to what might have happened had I not written and you not read.
God has us here in this place at this time for a reason. We have some very particular purposes in His plan and He alone knows them all. Try for a moment to appreciate your dignity in this regard. You play a critical part in a cascade of events that ripple from your life and your place in God’s plan. No one can take that place and your role is crucial to millions of subsequent transactions in God’s wonderful vision. Psalm 139 has this to say:
O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful. All my days were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139, selected verses).
The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an extended meditation on this topic. If, somehow, you have managed to miss seeing it at some point in your life, then you know what you must do! The protagonist of the movie, George Bailey, seeks to end his life, even going so far as to wish he had never been born. But an angel from Heaven takes him through the strange and sad “alternate universe” that would have resulted had he never been born. It is a world of terrifying loss for many, and George comes to discover the dignity and necessity of his life within God’s plan.
In God’s vision, no one can be said to be unnecessary or of limited importance. We have absolutely no way of knowing that. And given the intricacies of human interaction and the ripple effects thereof, we are pretty foolish if we think we have little importance. Rather, it seems we are quite essential.
Consider, too, an excerpt from an article I wrote a couple of years ago on the probability of us existing at all:
To say that we are contingent beings is a vast understatement. To say that someone or something is contingent is to say that the existence of same is not inevitable, but can only come about based on any number of previous things being true in a chain of being or causality. Hence, I would not exist if my parents had not existed and met. Further, they would not exist if their parents had not existed and met. And the chain goes back through generations. Thus, my existence here today depends upon a vast number of “meetings” going just right.
Consider some of the contingencies and requirements for your existence, as set forth by Ali Binazir. Some of the numbers are based on hunches, but if anything, they are on the conservative side. I am only reporting a small portion of his musings here. You can read his full article here: What are the Chances of You Being Born? and see how he comes up with these numbers.
So here are some of the probabilities of the events required for you to be born:
- Probability of boy meeting girl: 1 in 20,000.
- Now let’s say the chances of them actually talking to one another is one in 10.
- And the chances of that turning into another meeting is about one in 10 also.
- And the chances of that turning into a long-term relationship is also one in 10.
- And the chances of that lasting long enough to result in offspring is one in 2.
- So the probability of your parents’ chance meeting resulting in marriage and children is about 1 in 2000.
- The combined probability is now already around 1 in 40 million.
- Now things start to get interesting. Why? Because we’re about to deal with eggs and sperm, which come in large numbers. Each sperm and each egg is genetically unique because of the process of meiosis; you are the result of the fusion of one particular egg with one particular sperm. On average, a fertile woman has about 100,000 viable eggs. A man will produce about 12 trillion sperm over the course of his reproductive lifetime.
- Let’s say a third of those sperm (4 trillion) are relevant to our calculation, since the sperm created after your mom hits menopause don’t count. So the probability of that one sperm with half your name on it hitting that one egg with the other half of your name on it is 1/(100,000)(4 trillion)= 1/(105)(4×1012)= 1 in 4 x 1017, or one in 400 quadrillion.
- But because the existence of you here now on planet earth presupposes another supremely unlikely and utterly undeniable chain of events. Namely, that every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age we must also go further presuming 150,000 generations going back to man’s origin.
- Well then, that would be one in 2150,000 , which is about 1 in 1045,000– a number so staggeringly large that my head hurts just writing it down.
- But let’s think about this some more. Remember the sperm-meeting-egg argument for the creation of you, since each gamete is unique?
- Well, the right sperm also had to meet the right egg to create your grandparents. Otherwise they’d be different people, and so would their children, who would then have had children who were similar to you but not quite you.
- This is also true of your grandparents’ parents, and their grandparents, and so on back to the beginning of human time. If even once the wrong sperm met the wrong egg, you would not be sitting here noodling online reading fascinating articles like this one. It would be your cousin Jethro, and you never really liked him anyway.
- That means that in every step of your lineage, the probability of the right sperm meeting the right egg such that the exact right ancestor would be created that would end up creating you is one in 1200 trillion, which we’ll round down to 1000 trillion, or one quadrillion.
- So now we must account for that for 150,000 generations by raising 400 quadrillion to the 150,000thpower: That’s a ten followed by 2,640,000 zeroes, which would fill 11 volumes of a 250-page book with zeroes.
- For the sake of completeness: (102,640,000)(1045,000)(2000)(20,000) = 4x 102,685,007 ≈ 102,685,000
- Probability of your existing at all: 1 in 102,685,000
Now there are some assumptions above that you may quibble with. I would certainly add in (sadly) some probabilities related to being aborted or miscarried. But even a simpler analysis yields astonishing numbers.
Not only are you and I contingent, we are very improbable! Yet here we are! Mirabile visu! (wondrous to behold).
Theologically, of course, we are no mere accident or happenstance. God has always known us, intended us, loved us, and planned for us.
The photo above is of yours truly. Sorry for the informality of the T-Shirt, but I was playing with my camera last year on a trip to Mexico and captured this photo of me in a thousand different and possibly alternate realities.
Enjoy this summary of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and remember that “wonderful” means “filled with wonder (and awe).”