True Story



This is a true story. I promise.


You were born, and when you were born, it was abundantly clear that you were and would be one of a kind. Singular. Right down to the double helix of molecules that made your eyes brown (or blue or green), your hair straight (or wavy or curly or kinky), and your smile undeniable (or as rare and welcome as a fleeting glimpse of the sun on a cloudy day). The fact is, the world has never seen anything exactly like you, and never will again. That’s the truth, snowflake.


Also true: you are utterly unremarkable. Some 7.5 billion people live on Earth, and we represent only a small fraction of the approximately 100 billion who preceded us. Our species, moreover, is just one of 8.7 million thought to exist. Ants alone comprise as many as 22,000 different species, roughly 12,750 of which we have identified and named. As for individual ants, famed biologist E. O. Wilson once estimated their population at 10 quadrillion. (Think “hundreds, thousands, millions, billions, trillions, quadrillions.”) Which means that, counting only ants and humans while omitting entirely all other creatures, you share this planet with more than 10,000,007,500,000,000 other sentient beings.


And yet, despite the fact that, at the time of your birth, more than 100 billion human mothers had already given birth to 100 billion human babies, yours was a miracle. That’s true, my friend. Consider that just two cells, one male and one female, combined to create a person whose body is now constituted of more than 37 trillion cells. How did that happen? A tadpole afloat in amniotic fluid, developing inside the body of another person, ultimately became you. How? A world in which your absence was not noted, in which you were not missed, because no one could possibly know to miss someone who did not yet exist, became a world that some — even many — people cannot imagine without you. Doesn’t that seem miraculous to you?


Also true: you are and are not the person whom the nurse handed to your excited and exhausted mother that day so many years ago. For one thing, almost all of the cells in your body have long since died and been replaced, some of them many, many times over. In the course of just today — Thanksgiving, in the year 2016 — your body will have generated 60 billion new cells, none of which knew your mother’s kiss on that remarkable day of your birth. For another thing, this world of ours has molded you in ways no one could have foreseen. Shaped you. Hacked away at you, leaving scar upon scar. They’re like a roadmap to your past, those scars. A map with no markings or legend, which no one — not even forgetful and often bewildered you — is able to read. And the truth is, today may witness another dent or scratch or cut or blow. I hope not, but even so.


In all this, you have to believe me, because it’s undeniably true that you are and are not the exact center of the universe, that you are and are not the sine qua non, that you and are not the hero or heroine by whom, in this ancient and always new story that Time is telling, great deeds were and are and will be done. “Great”? Yes, my friend. Or do you think that the kindness you showed that cashier yesterday was trivial? (Not to her, it wasn’t. Her life is made up of a finite number of moments. You touched one of those moments and, like some medieval alchemist, made it golden.) Are you telling yourself that it doesn’t matter when you are selfish, petty, snarky, rude, or impatient with someone? It matters, and somewhere deep down, you yourself know that. (After all, if it doesn’t matter, what does?)


This is a true story: you are everything and nothing. Both. The world will bear the signs of your passing for the remainder of its days, and it will begin forgetting you in the very instant that you cease to exist.


And so be thankful. It’s all so simple and at the same time so wonderfully complicated. You can have it both ways; in fact, you must have it both ways. You can be happy, even when you’re not.


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