Chance of a Lifetime

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image by Guilherme Marconi

I am not, nor have I ever been, a betting man. Gambling claims no purchase on my soul. I say this not to boast. There is no virtue in abstaining from something that holds no fascination for you.

I demonstrated my lack of appetite for high-stakes gambling early. I was 9 years old when I went to my one and only horse race: the Kentucky Derby. My father gave me $10–a goodly sum back then–to bet until I lost it. At $2 a race, I would be in for at least five of the nine races. He carefully pointed out to me that if I squandered my stake on long shots that performed as expected, I would have nothing left with which to place a bet on the Kentucky Derby itself.

I learned the lesson a little too well, perhaps. To limit my exposure, I would place a show bet on the horse that was favored to win. This far-from-daring strategy taught me one lesson that I have never forgotten: Even the most cautious gambler can lose. Even when the favorites did perform as advertised, each show bet earned me a slim dime or two. No matter. By the time the Kentucky Derby rolled around, I still had $5 in my pocket. Ready to do something daring, I put it all on Silky Sullivan.

Silky Sullivan was a Western phenom. He stopped hearts in every race he entered. Halfway around the track, with the bunched contenders throwing up a great cloud of dust two city blocks ahead of him, Silky Sullivan loped along in solitary splendor, quixotic, romantic, and by every dint of racing logic, doomed. Then, to the amazement of all and the delight of anyone who dared to dream, with a burst of awe-inspiring speed he would close in on the pack, catch it at the final turn, pull up beside the leader, and win by a nose.

My young heart told me, win or lose, this was a horse worth every cent of my precious grubstake.

True to form, Silky ambled out of the gate and spotted a quarter furlong to the competition, prancing along nonchalantly until, like magic and flying like the wind, he closed the gap, dancing through the pack toward the flag. He’s going to win, I screamed. This prophecy proved premature. Three horses crossed the finish line together. Valiant Silky closed in on the leaders, but just enough to eat their dust.

Silky Sullivan didn’t break my heart that day. He made it beat faster. I can’t tell you who won the 1958 Kentucky Derby, but I’ll never forget that cocky little horse.

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about life’s odds. Four months ago I was diagnosed with a particularly savage form of esophageal cancer. Odds were, my doctor told me, I had only months to live. Entering all my variables into the relevant actuarial tables, the odds were 20 to 1 against me.

My father died of cancer at 59. His father died at 59 as well, of a heart attack. I am 58. The chapter I found myself opening offered compelling reason to believe it would be the last one in my book. And then I started beating the odds. Against all expectations, the cancer had not metastasized. A talented surgeon removed my esophagus, replacing it, conveniently, with my stomach. The post-op pathology brought us more good news. The margins were clear, the lymph nodes negative, and the tumor had barely penetrated the esophageal wall. New odds now: 3 to 1 that I am cured.

If there’s a moral to this story–beyond the obvious one that I might usefully have quit drinking and smoking decades before I did–it doesn’t lie on the surface of these shifting odds. If my cancer returns to kill me, it won’t be unfair, only unlucky, in the same sense that I was lucky to beat the odds that seemed at first to make survival a chancy bet. Beating the odds, I began to realize, had nothing to do with the stakes of the mortality table. The truth of the matter struck me with tremendous force. I’d beaten the odds already, won the house on a zillions-to-one wager 58 years before, the moment I was born.

“What did I do to deserve this?” we ask when things turn against us, forgetting that we did nothing to deserve being placed in the way of trouble and joy in the first place. The odds against each one of us being here are so mind-staggering that they cannot be computed.

We’re talking miracles here. Not an unlikely miracle, like God parting the Red Sea for Moses to escape the Egyptians, but the miracle of water itself, in which living organisms can incubate, and enough warmth and light from the sun to establish conditions for life to be nurtured and develop here on Earth.

Consider the odds more intimately. Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception. Right then, the odds were still a million to one against your being the answer to the question your biological parents were consciously or unconsciously posing. And that’s just the beginning. The same happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations. From the turn of the 12th century, we each have, mathematically speaking, 1 million direct ancestors.

Remember, each of these ancestors had to live to puberty. For those whose bloodline twines through Europe–and there were like tragedies around the globe–not one of your hundreds of thousands of direct forebears died as a child during the bubonic plague, which mowed down half of Europe with its mighty scythe.

Not only did all our human ancestors survive puberty, but their pre­human ancestors did the same. Then we have to go back further to our premammalian ancestors; and from there to the ur-paramecium; and beyond that to the pinball of planets and stars, playing out their agon into diurnal courses, spinning back through time to the big bang itself.

Mathematically, our death is a simple inevitability, whereas our life hinges on an almost infinite sequence of perfect accidents. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born.

If you find yourself out of the race, so far behind the pack that you can hardly see its dust–if the odds weigh against you, the odds against happiness returning to fill your days with joy, the seemingly overwhelming odds that you will never recover from whatever is beating you down–take a moment to ponder life’s cosmic odds and how you’ve already beaten them.

And then, while you’re blinking in the sun, pause one moment further and remember Silky Sullivan. A valiant stretch run may not make you a winner, but I can promise you this: It will make your heart and the hearts of those who love you beat faster.

Forrest Church’s cancer has returned since he wrote this sermon, and is now considered terminal. Excerpted from Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press; This excerpt also ran in Stanford(Nov.-Dec. 2008);

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