26 December 2007

Bernard on Miracles

Bernard was feeling introspective. He hadn’t touched his Reuben.

“The odds against your existence are staggering, you know,” he said wistfully.

“My existence? Why mine?”

“I’m talking about the universal ‘you,’ you twit,” he rebuked me. “But I do also mean you.” Finally, having said this he seemed to have regained his focus. He picked up the rye bread and took a bite. A little strand of sauerkraut dangled from the corner of his mouth. He looked content.

“Were you going to elaborate, or were you just going to leave me to guess about what you meant.”

“I’m eating,” Bernard said indignantly. So, I waited for Bernard to eat.

“The odds against my existence …” I reminded him as he began to stagger at the girth of his deli sandwich.

“are astronomical,” he said.

“Think of the series of improbable events that intervened between you and nonexistence. At least one of your parents – maybe both – probably have a story of missing death by inches before you were conceived. A car accident or a charging bull. Your grandparents, their grandparents, their grandparents … all could tell you stories of their brushes with death if only they were here. And if that is not enough, think of the stories of how they met. How rarely do people instantly fall in love? How easily might even one of the couples upstream from your gene pool have failed to meet or failed to fall in love or lust or whatever galvanized them to action? And if that were not enough – well, think about this. There are from 20 million to a billion sperm in an ejaculate. Think about the odds that the sperm that became you would be the one that won the race to the egg. In each generation! Given all that, how outrageously infinitesimal are the odds of you existing?”


“Wow indeed,” Bernard emphasized.

“So, what does this mean?”

“Well, the choice about what you make your own life mean is just a microcosm of the choice you have about what you make all of this mean,” Bernard gestured expansively. I was tempted to ask if he was referring to D.Z. Aikens restaurant, but I knew he meant the whole shebang – this whole universe around us. “You can make it mean that your life is destined or you can make it mean that your life is a triumph of the wildly improbable against the inevitable. In either case, I think that you have to take heart.”

“What does it mean I have to do?”

“Nothing. Anything. Everything. Your very existence is already an act of improbability. You might want to revel in that for a while.”

“Or even contemplate the odds against the existence of this very Reuben,” I said, returning my attention to my sandwich. “Think about the odds that this very dollop of mustard would meet with this very slice of pastrami.”

“Now you’re just being stupid,” Bernard said disgustedly. “The point is that we misunderstand miracles. We keep expecting levitating bodies or healing. If you really understand the odds against your existence, or more spectacularly, the odds against the existence of all of this,” he gestured again, “you’ll get the concept of miracle. You’ll see that our expectation of miracles is merely a distraction from the real miracle. It’s unnecessary.”


“So live your life with a sense of awe. Treat it like the miracle it is. Don’t wait until you’re 80 to revere what you think of as common.”

I can't say for sure, but I think that Reuben might have been the best I had ever had.