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Connor McGowan is a young man on the cusp of thirteen, living in Atlanta with his two sisters and his parents, one of whom am I. As my regular readers will know, I am immensely proud and honored to be his dad. He is intelligent, creative, funny, and deeply kind.

When he turns thirteen ten days from now, Connor will begin a year-long coming-of-age program of our own design. I’ll write about it as we go.

Even more exciting is the fact that Connor has now launched his own blog called THE WIDE SCREEN. He would be delighted if y’all would surf over there, take a look at his first posts and jot a comment or two.

BUT FIRST, by way of introduction, I thought I’d share some of his writing. Below is a short speech Connor wrote for a seventh grade assignment, one that shows his fascination with “personal improbability,” a.k.a. how amazingly unlikely was his birth.

Why Me? Why Not?

by Connor McGowan

Everyone, at some time in their childhood, has an image of themselves in the future. I want to be an astronaut. I want to be a construction worker. I want to be… These are the words of millions of children around the world. As the comedian George Burns put it, “I look to the future ’cause that’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.” But before we look to the future, we must look to the past. It’s the events of the past that decide who we are going to be, what our characteristics are, and even whether we are going to exist at all.

On April 23, 1862, a 19-year-old Confederate soldier was shot through the neck by a Yankee bullet. He lay on the battlefield, bleeding profusely, then was found and taken to a Yankee field hospital as a prisoner of war. The doctors were able to stop the bleeding just in time to save his life. If the bullet had entered his neck one inch further to the left, he would have died. I’m glad he didn’t, because if he had, I wouldn’t be giving this speech. That nineteen-year-old boy just happened to be my great-great-great grandfather.

Every one of us has a past full of moments where our ancestors came an inch away from death. But death is not the only thing that could have erased me, or any one of us. Even small, everyday decisions and events can have a huge impact on the future. Few people think about the amazingly small chance of them ever existing. Countless things had to go perfectly right all along the line. What if my dad married his first girlfriend instead of my mom? I wouldn’t have been born. What if my grandparents never met? I wouldn’t have been born. What if the marriage proposal my great-grandpa sent to my great-grandma got lost in the mail, and she married the mailman instead? You know the answer. And this goes on and on for thousands of generations and millions of people, all of them doing just what they had to do for me to be.

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Now here I am, making decisions of my own, all of which will affect generations and generations of my descendants. When my family moved from Minneapolis to Atlanta, it almost certainly changed the person I will eventually marry, which means countless people who would have been born will not be, and others who would not have been born, will be. Even the smaller decisions will have a big impact — where I go to college, what job I’ll have, and whether I’m careful crossing the street. Some will change who I am. Some will change what I do.

So why me? Because of all those millions of millions of people making millions and millions of choices and taking chances, I am here, giving this speech. I am standing at the neck of an hourglass. Above me are my millions and millions of ancestors all leading to me. Below me are my descendants. My ancestors are frozen in place. But, as I make choices and take chances, my descendants are constantly changing.

Now even though we are the result of infinite decisions, and we have been able to take part in existence, it doesn’t last forever. But that doesn’t make me unlucky. As Richard Dawkins said, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

So why me? Why not?

______________________

(The hourglass thing just kills me. Entirely his own metaphor.)

So pop over to THE WIDE SCREEN and say hey to my boy!

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.