Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds.
My birth was an extraordinarily unlikely event. Of the billions of people on Earth, the only two who could become my biological parents had to meet. Of the several trillion embryos that could have been funnelled into existence through the combination of my parents’ DNA, the single egg and sperm that could create me personally had to meet. My parents themselves had to be born, and their parents, and so on, each birth a fox outrunning the hounds of other statistical probabilities. The universe as we know it had to arise from all possible universes, our sun an improbable distance from the improbable Earth. Scientists put the likelihood of any one person’s existence somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1 in 400 trillion – or 1 in 10 to the power of two million, to be safe.
It’s no wonder, perhaps, that my own miraculous existence ill prepares me to respond rationally to statistical likelihoods. The fabric of my life is the paradox of being at once unique and mundane. Everyone else was just as unlikely, and yet here we all are – almost eight billion unicorns. Now that I do exist, I’m fairly unremarkable: I’m of average height and weight, and I look so much like other people that I am frequently mistaken for someone else. When I read the phrase “most people,” it should be easy to understand that this means me.
It has been several months of terrifying statistics: the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Canada was detected on Jan. 15, and at time of writing more than 20,000 infections have been documented. The death rate seems to be between 1 per cent and 3 per cent, but with so many unresolved cases, it’s hard to tell. As the number of critical cases overwhelms our health system’s capacity to treat patients, more of us will die. On Thursday, Health Canada officials released a range of scenarios informed by federal modelling, and two of the more developed scenarios suggest that, under the current measures, between 11,000 and 22,000 Canadians could die over the course of the pandemic.
I’m afraid for my parents, who are in high-risk categories – both are over 70 and my father has asthma. I’m afraid for my friends and relatives with auto-immune disorders, and, increasingly, for my friends who work in the health-care sector. The statistics tell us that we are about to lose people we love – but they can’t tell us who our lost ones will be. For healthy people my own age, the statistics say that most of us will live. But they can’t tell us which of us will die.
It’s a time when the friction between feelings and numbers is acute, and many of us are asking ourselves the same question: Am I ordinary, or am I terrifyingly special? Each of us has probably been singled out by fate at one time or another. If I won that raffle at a corn boil when I was 10; if I was chosen out of the crowd by that magician to come up on stage; if a seagull, circling over a beach thronging with hundreds of people, once chose my head to let loose on – how can I help believing that I will be singled out now?
It’s a form of narcissism to worry about being particularly unlucky. For this reason, I usually try to conceal my anxieties, along with my conviction that it is only the force of my fear that staves off disaster. On a turbulent flight, I am the one gripping the armrest to keep the plane in the sky. When I look out my window now and see my neighbours chatting on the sidewalk, casually drifting closer together before remembering to step back, I feel obscurely guilty that I am more afraid than they are.
But right now, a dose of narcissism – and even the pro-active adoption of practices that seem to border on magical thinking – can be a force for good. As our knowledge of the virus evolves, measures that seemed overly dramatic a week ago have become recommended guidelines. We are advised to behave as if each of us already has the virus – to assume that we are in the dangerous minority, so that our behaviour can prevent infected people from becoming the majority.
We can’t all be unexceptional. But it’s a time when ordinary people can take extraordinary measures not to distinguish ourselves, and to help friends, family and strangers fail to achieve notoriety.
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