We hear the question often. What are the odds? What are the chances? It’s a question of probability, of likelihood. What are the odds of winning big in a Las Vegas casino? What are the odds of having a happy marriage? Of surviving cancer? Of dying peacefully during your sleep?
I’ve always had a volatile relationship with statistics. With math part of the equation, I’m pathetically flummoxed by the numbers. But more than the sets and subsets and Venn diagrams, statistics gnaw at my equilibrium, like the hole in the screen that’s forever letting in the mosquitos. When Effie Trinket rallies the Hunger Games participants with the words “May the odds be ever in your favor!” no one feels the least bit cheery. Statistics never seem to be in our favor. At least the ones we hear about from the experts on the national news.
According to statistics, I will likely never make a million dollars, or launch a successful YouTube channel, or catch a Blue Marlin, or grace the pages of a history book. What about that novel I wrote? According to Google, the odds of getting it published by a legit New York House are “almost non-existent.” During my search to find a literary agent, I read this admission on an agency’s website:
“We take on a very small percentage of the work that we review, less than 1% of the queries we receive. We know they’re daunting odds, but we hope you believe strongly enough in your work to try us anyway.”
Less than 1%? I have a better chance of dying while fishing than finding someone to represent my novel.
Statistically, I am one of seven billion people on the earth. Since the beginning of time, this planet has hosted over 100 billion people according to estimates from the Population Reference Bureau. Add to this conjecture, the scriptural idiom “worlds without number,” and we have ourselves one encyclopedic myriad of human souls. As a child, I remember the jolt in my heart, the way my head spun in bewilderment when this notion wiggled into my mind. The sheer number of possible people flabbergasts me as much as the space time continuum or the popularity of the Twilight series. I’m left feeling like a resident of Whoville on the speck of dust in Horton Hears a Who. At the conclusion of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator predicts the world’s population will reach seven billion by 2000. He muses, “I suppose they will all want dignity.” In a sense, he is suggesting such numbers will cripple individualism and prevent the creation of too many heroes.
This brings me to the core of my distress over statistics. They shanghai my belief in the divinity of the soul. How can every single person who ever walked this planet be precious? How can each one be granted dignity? How can we all be special, star-like, champions? According to my religious belief, the percentage is 100%.
Every. Single. One. Of. Us.
But this spiritual philosophy is challenged by the status quo.
Chinese construction workers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics were evicted from the city before the opening ceremonies because they were classified as “undesirables.” Beijing residents living in the path of the new Olympic infrastructure were evicted and their homes demolished with no compensation. Those performing in the opening ceremony practiced for hours without food or bathroom breaks. The show must go on. The presentation to the world trumped any consideration for individual needs. Over and over again, history and governments have failed to venerate human life.
In the third grade, Mrs. Bailey told me I was special, but I never believed it. Not really. Statistically, if everyone is special then no one is special. If everyone gets a trophy then trophies mean about as much as a sticker. How can we all be precious if so many seem forgotten, or cast as extras in the featured film? The world only celebrates the few that triumph over great odds.
Odds of becoming a movie star: 1 in 1,190,000. There are reasons your folks tell you to have a backup plan.
My mother gave birth to nine children. The first five were girls except for my brother, Jeff, who arrived second and then waited nine long years to gain a brother. The five of us girls were squeezed into a span of only eight years and our lives often overlapped. We showed up at the same places, in the same clothes, with the same friends. People often failed to match our names—Tammy, Kristen, Becky, Lynette, Missy—to the correct stringy-haired girl. Dubbed “the Ott girls,” we were one entity with perceived identical personalities. Of course, we were each radically different but only those closest to us valued our differences. Due to our similar twiggy limbs and gigantic front teeth, we were lumped together like medium-sized melons. I hated the “one of the Ott girls” label, but my cagey shyness forced me to hide behind this persona. I often wanted to be invisible, but I still wanted to matter.
When I turned twelve, I joined a group of girls at my local congregation to play the notorious “church ball.” Showing up in tie-dye jeans and owlish glasses, I dribbled the ball like a hyena across the industrial carpeted gym floor until a man arrived with Ralph Macchio hair and a long-contoured face.
“Huddle up,” he called. We flocked to the west corner of the gym, our eighties hairdos spreading wings in our haste.
“Hi, I’m Terry. I’ve been asked to be your coach.” With that introduction, he let loose a pep talk of Biblical proportions, and we openly grinned at each other. Such enthusiasm was unusual for church ball. In the following weeks, we soaked in his love for the game, for coaching, and for Big Gulps from 7-Eleven.
Coach Terry told us stories. Stories of growing up Native American, the times he was called an apple—white on the inside, red on the outside—and his discovery that humor drew people to him. He told us about meeting his wife, about his kids, about the teams he played on when he was young. His enthusiasm seeped into our awkward bones and overturned our weak confidences. He led us in shooting drills and dribbling exercises. We ordered matching T-shirts and shed our lame mesh jerseys. We began winning.
I’ll never forget the day Coach Terry used me as an example of good defense.
“Watch how Kristen hustles to follow the movement of the ball and how she always keeps her arms high.” He had me demonstrate my involvement in the play. “Too many of you look like this,” he said and shuffled back and forth across the court with a half-baked attempt at defense. “Try to follow Kristen’s example.”
The moment was profound. I wanted to dogear it for all time, for all people, for quick finding in future moments of despair. I was good at something, something as cool as basketball. He drew me from the crowd. He separated me from the others so I could sense my worth. I drank up the attention as if I was dying of thirst in the Mojave Desert.
That summer, Coach Terry volunteered to attend girls camp as one of our priesthood leaders. The first day at Camp Shalom veered into typical chaos as heady girls tried to make the fateful decision of where to sleep. By nightfall, most of the trendy girls had deserted the cabin where my brown sleeping bag and lumpy pillow still lay on the leaking air mattress. I was stuck in the “reject” cabin. Before heading to the campfire, I found a picnic table and buried my head in a blanket. As the sun set, Terry found me there with his flashlight. He asked me what was wrong, and I mumbled back in broken teenagese.
“So you are feeling left out,” he translated.
I nodded, even though clearly the situation encompassed more passion and drama than simply feeling left out. There were intrigues and surprise plot shifts and questions of what everyone must be thinking about me. Ah, the complexities of a teenage girl’s life.
Terry straddled the bench across from me. “I remember feeling the same way when I was about your age,” he began, a story in the wings. “I’d just moved to a new place and decided to try something different. I was going to be happy and friendly to everyone. It wasn’t always easy, but I worked at it and people liked being around me. I became popular because I was happy.”
I nodded, unable to respond in any coherent way. As the sky faded to inky darkness, his heed to my plight sieved away the loneliness, leaving behind only a honeyed ache. I soaked in his story, his presence across the table, the words that must be true because he said them.
“I think you fit in perfectly. You always seem to be in the center of things.”
In that moment, I tapped into some hallowed light that cut through the darkness of my teenage angst. I was precious. I felt it in my bones, like marrow.
Not surprisingly, I crushed on Terry as only a wire-mouthed, overwrought teenager can until he and his family moved away months later.
God hovers above statistics, never dipping His toe into the shallow pool where we hunker as if shipwrecked, no rescue on the horizon. He says, rather empathically, that all worldly measurements—fame, money, power, athleticism, good looks—mean about as much as the billboard you pass every day on your commute but never notice, never read.
I think again of the Dr. Seuss story. The clover with the speck of dust that houses the town of Whoville is dropped maliciously into a field of identical clovers “a hundred miles wide!” I cradle a dark ball of doom behind my rib cage at this point in the story. Horton’s chances of finding the clover must be 1 in 100,000,000. The odds are not in his favor. The field of pink clovers stretch off the page, every one of them identical in shape and size. Luckily, the statistically improbable magically happens in stories. Horton finds his friends on the “three millionth flower.”
We cherish these stories of success against great odds. We zero in on the hero, the underdog scoring the winning point or at the very least, making the Notre Dame football team. We conjure up tales of cities saved by flying men and souped-up love between vampires and humans. We canonize stories that give us hope as we gaze across our own field of Seuss-shaped clovers.
There are statistics that give me hope. Perhaps less sensational, they float like bright balloons in a gray and miserable sky.
- Statistically, you have a good chance of surviving a cancer diagnosis these days.
- The more gratitude you cultivate, the greater the odds you will be happier with your life.
- We are all only six degrees away from Kevin Bacon.
- The odds of this intricate world existing without purpose and meaning must be 1 in a gazillion.
- The human spirit should have been crushed centuries ago by the inhuman events of history. But it thrives and there is kindness still.
- God says we have been engraved on the palms of His hands. That’s some serious commitment. It means that despite appearances and statistics:
Every. Single. One. Of. Us.
My eleven-year-old son has started confessing his shenanigans to me. Blinking rapidly, he blurts out he ate four Zingers yesterday while I was gone.
“I’m so sorry,” he bemoans. “I just couldn’t help myself. The frosting is a yummy shell and the soft cake part just melts in your mouth.” He looks at me, mournful and contrite.
I hug him, I can’t help it. “It’s not a big deal, okay? But please don’t do it again. Those Zingers are only for lunches.” I squeeze him hard, so he knows I mean business.
The next morning, he hovers by the pantry door and asks what I think would happen if he lit one of his paper airplanes on fire and flew it across the backyard into the snow.
Distracted, I keep rummaging for the cornstarch. “Well, probably not much but you could get burned so it’s not a great idea.”
When I turn, he’s still standing in the doorway, so I give him a hug on the way out. The husky smell of smoke reaches my nose.
“Why does your hair smell like smoke?”
He glances down at the floor, only hesitating for a moment. “I just lit one of my paper airplanes on fire outside.” Now, he’s hugging me fierce. “I’m so sorry, Mom, I just couldn’t help it.”
“What? Did you use matches?” I asked.
“Yeah. Matches. I’m so sorry, Mom!” He throws his arms around me again. “I have a problem.”
I suppress the urge to laugh. He’s learning the shallowness of his self-control, the pathos of being eleven.
Then it hits me. I’m vital to his survival. My job is to get him to adulthood without starving, freezing, or becoming addicted to porn. He needs me for love, a mother’s love. Statistically speaking, there is no backup plan for Zeke. To him, I am irreplaceable. One-of-a-kind in a field of clovers. Precious.