Life is a miracle. The miracle of life. You’ve probably heard some variant of this concept so many times that it has become cliché.
Don’t let it. It’s true.
When I ask Google what the actual, mathematical odds of you being born are, the first answer that comes back is “1 in 400 trillion.” Math is not my strong suit, but I know that is a lot of zeros.
There is an old Buddhist story that tries to put some context to all those zeros. It involves a single blind turtle swimming somewhere in the world’s oceans and another single wooden cattle yoke randomly floating across the oceans with a hole in it that is about the size of a life preserver ring. The chance of you being born, according to the story, is about the same as that blind turtle surfacing exactly into that floating ring.
You sound like a miracle to me.
And that turtle’s feat doesn’t even do justice to the miracle of you. Author and physician Dr. Ali Binazir set out to calculate the actual mathematical odds of your birth. Your parents not only had to meet and conceive a child, they also had to conceive you, which required one individual sperm out of trillions to meet one individual egg out of a hundred thousand. Those odds, according to Dr. Binazir? One in 400 quadrillion. Whatever that means. And that number is before considering the fact that your mom and your dad—and the specific DNA that they passed on to create you—had to come from an unbroken string of over 150,000 generations of ancestors that reproduced before them. After calculating that long, long line of causation, Dr. Binazir ends up with a number that doesn’t even sound like a number. In his words: “It’s the probability of 2.5 million people getting together — about the population of San Diego — each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice — and they all come up the exact same number — say, 550,343,279,001.”
I think about that as I look down at my open hand. There are my fingerprints—visible examples of the miracle of my life’s unique existence. The pattern of dermal ridges was encoded in my DNA, and the final design was set by the time I was six months old as my hands interacted with the world around me. The genetic instructions I see at play there were passed down from my parents and I have now passed them along to my three children. Gifts from the past marching on into the future.
A closer look at my right hand illustrates the mystery of some of those genes that helped to determine who I am. The pinky finger on my right hand has an extra crease, giving me four creases instead of three. When I was a kid I used that extra crease as a way to quickly remember right from left. I still sometimes unconsciously press my thumb to my pinky when I’m telling someone which way to go. It’s called a “supernumerary digital flexion crease,” and it appears to develop from a recessive gene that skips generations. No one alive in my family shares it with me. It’s a fragment of DNA from some long-ago ancestor. A genetic whisper from the past that helped build me.
Our understanding of heredity—the passing on of physical or mental characteristics genetically from one generation to another via the DNA in our genes—has come a long way in my lifetime. On June 26, 2000, President Clinton announced the completion of the “Human Genome Project,” a massive, world-wide scientific effort to map the entire sequence of genes that form the blueprint for human beings. The U.S. alone provided $2.7 billion in funding to produce this initial reference map—the framework needed to produce and analyze your own unique genomic sequence. Your body’s specific operating manual. In 2006, it would have cost you $20 to $25 million dollars to sequence your complete genome. As I write this today, it costs around $1,000.
It’s that massive drop in pricing that caused me to walk into the Aloft hotel on Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis on a hot summer day in 2016. I was nervous enough that I noticed the palms of my hands were sweating. We were about to meet my wife Sarah’s biological sister, Kelly, for the first time. I glanced at Sarah. I couldn’t imagine the range of emotions she was experiencing. I’ve known her since we were 19, and she has always had a deep-seated need to connect the branches of her biological tree. It was a struggle for her to find anything, until that price drop made personal genetic testing attainable. An email arrived from Kelly shortly after Sarah had taken a 23andme genetic test. I think I’m your sister.
And now here they were—meeting in that hotel lobby. Hugging. Crying. Smiling. Looking into the face of another human that shared a lot of the same genetic instructions and predispositions. A surprise opportunity to form a kinship with kin.
It made me think about the gift that Sarah and Kelly’s biological mom had given to those sisters, and to the rest of my family that was gathered around watching them meet on that beautiful summer day. Every one of you reading this was given that same gift.
Part of your miracle.
I think I understand Sarah’s desire to seek out and understand her genetic past and how it manifests itself in the flesh and blood of the present moment. But despite all of the amazing advances happening in genetics, it is still clear that your genetic make-up is only one part of your ultimate destiny—the person you make out of the miracle that is your life.
As is often the case in subjects like this, turning to the ancient Greeks provides illumination. They created two intertwined concepts to represent life: Zoe and Bios. Roughly translated, life includes Zoe, the life that was given to you; and Bios, the life that you make from it. As those Greek thinkers recognized, our identities are shaped not only by our genetics, but also by the interplay and interactions we have with each other and the shared world around us. There is a South African word that also captures this—Ubuntu. Roughly translated, Ubuntu means “I am, because of you.” Sarah could look into Kelly’s face and see her genetic reflection, but she could also turn to me and our kids and also see who she is; who she, and we, have become as we travel through time together.
We don’t often think about the concept of inheritance, the process or receiving something of value from an ancestor. Some inheritance is biological—the DNA that lets you take a deep breath. Some is social—your freedom of speech. Some is technological—the electricity in your walls. All of these are unearned gifts. And they all have accumulated in a miracle sequence of causation since the beginning of time to make up the present moment that you—your Zoe and your Bios—find yourself in. Alive. Metabolizing. Breathing. Heart beating. You, in this moment, have the power to see these gifts of inheritance and decide how they make you feel. And you have the power to use them as you move forward to shape your life and destiny.
Let’s return to your fingerprint. It was formed by genetic instruction AND how you pushed out and interacted with the world. Both make up who you are. If you scrape off the skin to try to remove your unique print, it will grow back, as many criminals trying to evade their histories have discovered. In certain ways, you can’t escape your genetic predispositions even if you want to. But that’s just a small part of who you can become. Consider John O’Leary. O’Leary accidentally managed to remove his fingerprints—he suffered burns over 95% of his body in a tragic childhood accident and had his fingers amputated. But he has gone on to lead an amazing life as a husband, father, business owner and author. As he lays out in his book “In Awe: Rediscover Your Childlike Wonder to Unleash Inspiration, Meaning and Joy,” we can’t change the past, but we can choose to view everything as a gift. In O’Leary’s words, “[t]he fact that each one of us is here—it’s nothing short of a miracle. Perhaps it’s time we start acting like it.”
So here you find yourself in the present moment. It’s a miracle. You are a miracle. I hope you choose to use that miracle, and the gifts from the past that you’ve inherited, as fuel to become the person you want to be.