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Thank God you were born!

Or thank the cosmos! Or evolution! Or your parents! Or “to whom it may concern”!

“Thank God you were born” is the message I often write on birthday cards or Facebook birthday messages. I intend it as my own thanksgiving for the birth of the person I’m greeting, but I realize it could be understood as a spiritual directive to the recipient as well.

As you might guess, this post is partly prompted by the American observance of Thanksgiving tomorrow, but it is mostly inspired by the words of an astronaut I heard last night watching PBS’s Beyond A Year in Space. Knowing the desert quality of much of the rest of the universe, seeing the “oasis” of planet Earth from afar, the astronaut said of life on earth, “When you’re born, you’re in heaven.”

Many of you know how much that sentiment resonates with me. In The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life, I wrote that if this is all there is, then, thanks be to God! But also, understanding that heaven is to be found in this life reminds me to see it, seek it, make it, create it, share it, and appreciate it.

I know that my suffering, though real and mine to claim, is minimal compared to the many who experience this life as hell through no fault of their own. But built in me is the ability for personal suffering to be turned into empathy and compassion for others. And I see this gift in those who have been through hell and back.

It was my own loneliness as a child and teenager that made me welcoming of others, to whatever extent I am. It was the denial of vocational goals and aspirations that made me wish better for future generations. It was the inequality and injustice I experienced personally that made equality and justice a wish for all, and prompted me to do what I could to help achieve it.

But this earth gave me a chance to breathe and to grow and feel pleasure and see beauty and hear harmony and dissonance, to know love, and to taste and see that life can be good. If and whenever these abilities are limited, there’s still a glimpse and a memory and a hope to sustain me, even inspire me.

It humbles me to know that dinosaurs reigned on this earth for 160 million years and were extinct for 66 million years before the evolution of mammals led to my distant ancestors. Humans almost seem like an afterthought or a blip in evolutionary time.

And it humbles me when I recognize our individual frailty and limits as I did last Wednesday sitting in a surgery waiting room as spouses and families and friends awaited word of their loved ones from their surgeons. Our time is brief, but oh-so-valuable, or all the more valuable.

A friend in mourning simply and respectfully described another’s death, “We all have a fragile grip on life, and she lost hers.” So, all the more reason to celebrate our birth days.

When I visited Nepal I learned that the local priest came to one’s house to offer a blessing the morning of one’s birthday. I can’t remember if the local priest was Hindu or Buddhist, but what a wonderful thing to emulate!

Birth days are a blessing, in and of themselves.

Thank God you were born!

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