Although many Americans have lost touch with the historical origins of the holidays that are celebrated around the winter solstice, we probably spend more time reflecting on our lives in this season than any other. We are at home more, and the weather often keeps us indoors. We see more of our families, and less of our co-workers from the business world. And then there are those constant cues from the media about how this is supposed to be a magical time of the year. So if you are happy with your life, this is probably the time when you are going to appreciate your good fortune most keenly, and if you are not happy, that feeling will probably hit you hardest over the next few weeks.
Despite my propensity for self-absorption, I try at this time of the year to appreciate the people who have made it possible for me to have a decent life. A smart and hardworking wife, who somehow manages to be pretty every day despite being around me for 20 years. Twelve-year-old twins who on their worst days are better than I ever was at their age. Parents who valued knowledge and family above status and display. Colleagues who are skillful and informed in ways that I am not. And then there are the hundreds of forebears on whose shoulders I ride, to borrow a phrase from Neil Kinnock — the countless generations that came before me without whom I would never have existed. I only know a few of them by name, but what little I know about their lives suggests that my good life is largely the product of their struggles.
I’m not a religious person, but it seems to me that in practical and tangible ways each of us is a miracle. We are all unique, and the more you learn about science from the Big Bang onward, the more you realize how improbable our very existence is. In a galaxy of a hundred billion stars, so vast it takes light 40,000 years to get from where we are to the center, there are probably only a handful of planets hosting life with as much potential as we have here. The odds are just too long for what we have to happen in many places. We are all very, very lucky to exist at all.
And having been the unlikely beneficiaries of physical forces beyond our understanding, we are doubly blessed to be living at this time, in this place, in human history. There has never before been a country quite like America, where freedom and prosperity and security were so accessible to so many people. In my darker moments, I fear that our nation is a brief anomaly in the broad sweep of human history, that may soon be brought down by our baser instincts. But every time we are tested we prevail, and meanwhile the progress of science makes life better for each succeeding generation. The year my father was born, life expectancy in the U.S. had barely reached 50 years. Today, it has risen to nearly 80. If my children’s generation sees a similar leap in longevity, they will live well beyond the age of 100.
Few of us spend much time contemplating how fortunate we are to live in an era when doctors understand germs, engineers understand physics, and policymakers understand economics. But this is the best time ever to be alive, and America is the best place to be if you want to benefit fully from the struggles of those who went before us. You will find much evidence of that fact under your tree on Christmas morning, but the real gift is that we are here at all.
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