Every one of us has unique experiences in life that help shape the way we see the world. In fact, of the nearly 7 Billion people on the planet, or even the 11 Billion estimated ever to have walked the earth, it’s a remarkable thing that we can say with unassailable confidence that every single life is unique. Genes and the circumstances of life experience guarantee that no two human lives across the span of history will ever be identical. Interesting concept.
One of the experiences that shaped my world view was growing up with an older brother for whom circumstance created an unbearable burden. To the outside world I was the good kid, he was the bad kid. I went to college, he went to prison. I was the picture of potential, he was the essence of disillusionment. While that perception was reflected back to me almost every day of my life, I knew my brother’s die was cast long before he was even born. Born on a military base to a soldier who’d brought a villager back from the Korean war as a wife, given up as an infant, and adopted into a lily white family to spend a lifetime as the odd one out.
I grew up in the shadow of his tragic arc untouched. Mostly. I saw the muted and reflexive racism from strangers and even family friends. I saw the desperation of needing to belong. I saw the anger and destruction. How many family dramas? How many arrests? How many times in juvenile hall, and then jail, and then prison, before he dissolved into the shadow everyone shudders to recognize as a homeless heroin addict on the street in San Francisco? And God, how many programs and attempted rescues along the way?
But I knew something else. I knew someone that was part of the family before I was born. Unquestionably my brother. I knew an amazing artist, even though he never had the confidence to see it. I knew someone of extraordinary empathy, borne as it was of an unrelenting isolation. I knew someone with potential no less than mine but for the circumstance that would have crushed me in his place.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about that. What the world sees. What I see. A junkie. A brother. My life and his life and the impossible trajectories of chance.
So I was sitting in the car one day, lost in a long line of traffic behind a stop sign in a leafy neighborhood on the most perfect of days. Inch forward. Stop. Inch forward. Stop. And when I got to the intersection, swimming through a haze of benign and disconnected thoughts, my attention suddenly sharpened into focus on a broken down man sailing through the intersection in front of me on a broken down bike, with a wide and toothless smile. And I caught my first reaction, the reaction I’d seen in the faces of people sizing up my brother, and I started to wonder what I didn’t see in the life rolling past me. And something clicked.
I started thinking, if I were God, aside from the obvious questions–of evil, free will, of why bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason–why would I create a world in which billions of people are guaranteed to live entirely unique existences? What’s the point of that? And why would such a fabulous mechanism of mass singularity, were it created by design, have so much accommodation for suffering so often delivered by chance? The answer materialized as fast as the question, before the toothless guy had ridden past my car.
What if every living soul is one digit in the total calculation of human experience? Every experience, every life, would signify equal importance to the whole, even if the intrinsic value of individual digits–pain here, glory there–is different. The value of one life can be judged by the world, or its owner, to have greater or lesser value, but on a deeper level the meaning of one life to the whole is the same as any other, homeless addicts and saints alike in their contribution to the sum of all possible experience. For some reason that struck a chord with me–as if lending me the freedom to see the life of a heroin addict without denial or condemnation, without the rationalization of victimhood, without understanding or the need of it. One life equals one placeholder in the calculation of human experience, and the engine of singularity ensures the contribution of value for every life regardless of choices or trajectories, tragedies or triumph, and above all regardless of judgment for the ripples of creation and destruction that flow from it.
And the toothless man rolled on.