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It’s a Wonder-filled Life: A Meditation on the Mystery and Unlikely Chances of Our Very Existence

December 1, 2014 22 Comments

120114Most 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:

  1. Probability of boy meeting girl: 1 in 20,000.
  2. Now let’s say the chances of them actually talking to one another is one in 10.
  3. And the chances of that turning into another meeting is about one in 10 also.
  4. And the chances of that turning into a long-term relationship is also one in 10.
  5. And the chances of that lasting long enough to result in offspring is one in 2.
  6. So the probability of your parents’ chance meeting resulting in marriage and children is about 1 in 2000.
  7. The combined probability is now already around 1 in 40 million.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. But let’s think about this some more.  Remember the sperm-meeting-egg argument for the creation of you, since each gamete is unique?
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. For the sake of completeness: (102,640,000)(1045,000)(2000)(20,000) = 4x 102,685,007 ≈ 102,685,000
  18. 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).”

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  1. Tuesday, 9th December – A Wonder-Full Life | Letters from Elena | December 9, 2014
  1. Victor says:


    The best one is boy meeting girl — 1 in 20,000 – lol’s 🙂

    The 150k generations is probably way off:

    – From Adam to Abraham was maybe around 40 Generations (1,948 years maybe)
    – From Abraham to Jesus 42 Generations (Gospel of Matthew Chap. 1)
    – From Jesus to now (2014 AD) maybe around 40 Generations

    The Epistle of Barnabas in the Early Church Father’s writings says God will finish everything in 6,000 years (of time) has right now (2014/2015) as the 6,000th Year — {2022 could possibly be year 6,000 though}

    Much love,


  2. one anonymous says:

    Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance; in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

    Psalm 139:
    13 For thou didst form my inward parts,
    thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb.
    14 I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful.
    Wonderful are thy works!
    Thou knowest me right well;
    15 my frame was not hidden from thee,
    when I was being made in secret,
    intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.
    16 Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance;
    in thy book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.
    17 How precious to me are thy thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
    18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    When I awake, I am still with thee.

  3. Doug says:

    A googol is 10 to the power of 100, that 10100. Carl Sagan has speculated that there are not that many elementary particles in the known universe. It is a really big place and we are really small.

    Our sin is but a grain of sand in the ocean of God’s mercy.

  4. A. Martin says:

    Our pride encourages us to try to comprehend and explain the magnitude of God’s creation. Yet, we see so little and explain next to nothing. We are so inferior to Him.

    A while back I picked up Mystical City of God and in it, if my memory serves me, Ven. Mary of Agreda, described how God knew each of us in an instant even before he created physical Earth. It is, so to speak, not random that we are here. It is all part of God’s plan. Any attempt to understand the probability of our existence is futile. In a way we are almost predestined by God himself to lovingly serve Him according to his Will. So, the real surprise of creation is that he gave us each Free Will to deviate from His Will. It is amazing to me that we have the audacity to think we can rationalize before God our errant Free Will decisions. Go figure. . . .

    Great Advent post, Msgr.

  5. Richard Connell says:

    Good pic. Keep taking care of yourself.

    They say that as time increases indefinitely the possible becomes necessary, such as us.

    Those examples can’t be taken too seriously. Driving the speed limit could cause the guy driving behind to go nuts and commit a heinous crime against himself and his family and/or his dog. Despite that possibility, one should stay reasonably close to the speed limit.

    This is key: I can say, “I am someone,” and I have no idea why I and all the other someones, all the other people who are living and have ever lived, can say, “I am someone.” And reflecting on the fact that I can say that I am someone, an, assuredly, contingent someone, the name of God that God told to Moses makes sense, “I AM THAT I AM.”

    I told someone that I believe in God and he told that that was egotistical. Based on the above thoughts, I had to admit that that was true. So, I had to ask, if egoism has lead me to believe in God, then is egoism, as everyone says, bad? The conclusion was that self-reflection that doesn’t terminate in turning toward God is when egoism turns ugly.

    There are other good reasons to believe in God, also.

  6. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    I always thought you would be a great clone to fill the gap in the priest shortage and revive parish memberships and save souls. Suspenders are more practical than a belt and more dependable. I got my first pair back in 1955 when I was four. They were Dick Tracey themed with all the comic characters’ faces along the straps and a chrome tin badge on the left breast strap. I outgrew them but little did I realize I would grow back into wearing suspenders 58 years later. They aren’t Dick Tracey’s and I wear them under my shirt but they do make me feel young again. It’s a wonderful life.

  7. RAY - PORTSMOUTH UK says:

    Thank you so much for this Mgr Charles.
    I have, all my life, toyed with all the ideas and thoughts which you have propounded on this most ‘wonderful’ of mysteries. Why should I even exist at all?!
    And then in my early teens, I came across this wonderful prayer by the truly holy, English Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801 – 1890). Suddenly, the jumbled jig-saw pieces of the mystery of my existence all fell into place.
    I offer it here for all who have not as yet come across it:
    “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
    Amen to that! God bless all.

    • Richard Connell says:

      That Newman prayer reminded me of this well-known and forgotten passage from Habakkuk, Habakkuk 3:17-18:

      17 What though the fig-tree never bud, the vine yield no fruit, the olive fail, the fields bear no harvest; what though our folds stand empty of sheep, our byres of cattle? 18 Still will I make my boast in the Lord, triumph in the deliverance God sends me. 19 The Lord, the ruler of all, is my stronghold; he will bring me safely on my way, safe as the hind whose feet echo already on the hills.

    • Dee says:

      Thank you Ray. Reading that quote helped me more than words can say.

      • RAY - PORTSMOUTH UK says:

        Dear Dee and Memorare
        Thank you for those kind words. I’m so glad it meant something to you.
        There! You see? I just ‘knew’ there was some reason why I am here . . . . . !!!
        God love and bless all.

    • Memorare says:

      Beautiful quote! My grandmother as a child wondered, “Why am I me?” Please say a prayer for her soul.

  8. Shan Gill says:

    Probability exists (only) in the finite mind of man; in this world of our limited extra-computational capability.
    Fortunately for us, Our Lord has no such limitation. He Exists, and his way is the way of his Will.
    As he reminds us when we recite the Lord’s Prayer. (Where Will exists, randomness is banished.)
    We are Eternalists, set in the world, but not of the world of materialism.
    Handel’s Messiah is a wondrous delight. Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” is also such a work.

  9. R in Indiana says:

    You have so eloquently said what I have been thinking. I love the Weaver’s prayer, but lately I have been thinking about a painting. When bad things happen, it is like a black mark in God’s painting, but that darkness can add depth. It may not be what God desired, but God uses the darkness to make the rest of the colors shine more brilliantly.

  10. BHG says:

    The “what if” scenarios made me smile. Many years ago, my groom and I gave a talk at the insistence of our medical school superiors about the risks of being married as students in medical school–they thought, I think, that our recitation of the challenges would discourage people from marrying (as they tried very hard to discourage my husband and me from marrying in our second year) but we gave the talk anyway. We did smile at the hubris in later years–we had been married only a couple of years at that time! Anyway, we stayed at at B and B a few years ago, nearly thirty years later, and the couple with us at table (with two lovely adult children accompanying them) seemed vaguely familiar. As breakfast wound down we discovered we had been in medical school at the same place at the same time. Turns out they were a couple in the audience, a couple of years behind us in school, and our talk gave them the courage to marry–they went on to establish programs for medical students and residents to help support them in marriage through school and training We are indeed mysteriously connected and it is a joy when God lets us see how from time to time….

  11. DWiss says:

    Meeting my wife, obviously, was a turning point in my life. I often think of all the events that led up to our meeting, many of them were stupid things I did, and the improbability of it stuns me. We have three really great children, now grown (if being in college counts as “grown” – sometimes I wonder) and I can’t imagine a life without them. All from that very chance meeting one afternoon in 1977.

    Last week I mentioned in a reply that I love this life; I cannot hate it. It’s just too good. It has God’s fingerprints all over it.

  12. Jim J. McCrea says:

    God knows all possibilities, and all the choices that all possible creatures would make in all possible situations.

    From that, He constructs a real universe with a definite history.

  13. Maria J. says:

    Thank you Msgr , for giving a good topic to ponder and wonder about , one of the good things children marvelously bring to our lives too often and thus help to relive our own childhood , all the while wondering what fun / joy /chuckles our Father and the angels /saints might be having about our own efforts and foibles at trying to figure out things about the great and little things about life ; He even presents us with Scripture , that at one level can seem too full of riddles ( thank God Mother Church makes it more into portion sizes , in the readings of the Holy Mass .)

    Came across those verses about the Lord’s utterance on how He has not seen faith like that of the centurion in ‘all of Israel’ and knowing of the Portestant tendency to use that verse to belittle Bl.Mother, has been trying to grasp more of what that verse might have really meant to convey ; couple of things that have come to mind are – He likely would not have wanted to include His Mother , as just another Israelite , since she would have been more like one who is beyond such limitations, like The Lord Himself ; another interpretation could be how , having already given Her Fiat , She has shown what faith is about and true , The Lord did not likley
    ‘see ‘ it with His human eyes 🙂 ( He would see such or even far surpassing faith /trust again , during The Passion ! )

    and once the faith came in , all else from The Mother would have been from the trust that comes from pure love that is a surpassing gift , like at the Wedding at Cana !

    Thank you for prayers for us all , that The Spirit and The Mother guide us and keep us , in awe and wonder of His goodness !

  14. Lisa Schmidt says:

    So many things to contemplate here, but SONY! You shoot with a Sony. Me, too. Here I thought I was a big, bad rebel for shooting with one. (And that photo might win you a ribbon or something at the Iowa State Fair. Come and visit us next summer!) 🙂

  15. John Francis says:

    Thank you Msgr.
    And the improbability of organic thinking life in the universe adds some to the raised powers.The precise location of earth in the sweet spot that allows life.
    I was fascinated by parralel mirrors since youth.My Mom had two mirrored vanities? Approx 10ft apart that could be tilted to make instant infinity when you peered intently.
    Also a diner in Chester, Pa had two walls like that.
    A scientist has stated that the more he studies the physical universe, the more it seems like a ” Thought”
    Wow, then the words of St John..”In the beginning was the word(thought) and the Word was with God and the Word was God”
    My brain hurts..

  16. Anne says:

    Pope John Paul II: “In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” This amazing remark was made in 1982 on the 1st anniversary of the assassination attempt which would have ended his earthly existence.

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