Thanksgiving is always a good time to take stock of your luck. At the table, many families take turns relating something to be grateful for. In such a shared setting, we usually talk about nice things in the world that we can all be thankful for: friends and family, roofs over our heads, California weather, Smartwool socks, anyone who makes the political landscape look less bleak or at least funny, the rise of the American microbrew.
This year, I felt thankful for something of a more selfish nature. I was thankful for being alive, because I recently realized the odds were against me. And I suspect that if you did the math, you would feel the same.
I started to appreciate the unlikelihood of being not only alive but generally unscathed after sharing some near-miss stories with friends over a pitcher or two. We could each think of at least two events in our lives in which we had about a 50 percent chance of survival. Illness, cliffs, cars, water and ice had variously attempted to snuff us out, and with the help of our waitress, we calculated the odds of any one of us surviving two mortal coin-tosses were one in four (yes, this is probably fourth grade math and we should be embarrassed we needed help, but the waitress had been in fourth grade more recently). Later she came back, calculator in hand, and pointed out that the odds of all four of us being around to tip her generously were under half a percent. Had it not been for all the beer, it would have been sobering.
Maybe I’m just in a morbid frame of mind lately, but since then I’ve remembered other close calls, and though they weren’t in the 50-50 category, they add up. I worked for years with power tools, high ladders, live electricity, and nasty chemicals. I’ve gone beyond my abilities surfing, climbing, mountain biking, parachuting, and kayaking. I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles, many as a teenager. When the ’89 quake hit, rocks and dirt rained all around me from the ocean bluff I was sitting against, reading (note: the dog next to me provided no warning). With every close call, no matter how small, the odds just keep getting worse.
And yet I have all my extremities, both my eyes, and no major scars. Amazing, I’m thinking, and all that doesn’t even take into account what I can’t remember: early childhood. Toddlers are uncannily drawn to the most dangerous elements in their environment and somehow get away with it (“Get out of the oven, honey.”). According to Family Circus cartoons, it’s usually the ghost of Gramma saving them, but I like to think if Gramma were treated to an afterlife, she’d be lounging in a paradise of gin and swing music, not minding the kids again.
Heck, I could go back even farther—during the Cuban missile crisis, I was still in my mama’s belly. Kennedy later estimated the odds of that conflict triggering a nuclear war were one in three. So I was literally born lucky.
After that first conversation, my friends too have been recalling more instances where they managed to skate past life’s hazards. These memories seem to be buried in shallow graves in our subconscious; they can be found if you bother to look. To those who find this unsettling, I’m sorry, but I’m also somewhat relieved to see it’s not just me who can compute his odds of surviving intact at less than 20 percent.
Like most people, I get more risk-averse as I get older. I’ve always wondered what that was about, but now I think of it as an instinct to not press my luck. with every passing year, there’s more luck to press. If it’s statistically unlikely that I got this far, I’d hate to blow it now. I was thinking of going mushroom hunting for my birthday this week, but maybe not now.
Obviously, something isn’t adding up. If life were so dangerous, far fewer of us would be around long enough to complain about cell phones in bathrooms and kids these days. Sure, we all have peers who didn’t make it, who died tragically along the way. It seems amazing, though, that we haven’t lost more. So the way I see it, it can only be explained by luck, divine intervention, or a bad statistical analysis. The skeptic in me assumes it’s the math, but I’m disinclined to look too closely. I’m happy to believe that you don’t have to walk away from a plane crash to feel lucky to be alive. I only hope that after all this, when it’s time for me to go it’ll be due to some statistically improbable event, like getting hit by an asteroid. When you visit my grave, it’ll read: “Even in death, he beat the odds.”