It wasn’t until I tried to answer a question about my own experience of miracles that I realised how much I struggle with them. I reviewed my life and found it to be miracle-free. Not one miracle.
To me, that suggested three possible conclusions:
- miracles don’t happen
- miracles don’t happen to me
- my cognitive biases prevent me from seeing miracles when they happen.
So I reviewed my life again, looking for times when the most probable outcome of a set of events was my death but when I didn’t die.
I found two.
The first was getting caught in an undertow when swimming alone in the Atlantic off the coast of Donegal. No miracle involved. Faced with the choice of swim harder or die I discovered that I could swim much better than I’d ever realised.
The second was coming off my motorbike on a flyover in London in heavy traffic. My rear tyre blew. All I could do was control the fall so the bike slid ahead of me without any of me under it. I couldn’t do anything about the two lanes of cars travelling at 50 mph on the wet road behind me.
I walked away without a scratch. Any miracle involved?
The lack of physical damage from sliding along the tarmac with the back of my head bouncing as I went was down to the quality of the gear I was wearing. My oversuit and helmet were trashed. My leathers were scuffed. I was fine. No miracle. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The statistically improbable thing was that there was a police car immediately behind me when my tyre blew. They hit their lights and blocked other vehicles from running over me. Without that, it’s much less likely that I’d have walked away.
I still see no miracle. I see a statistically highly improbable event that worked to my advantage.
Perhaps this is just me protecting my atheist belief system and filtering out the intervention of the Divine. Recognising such an intervention would shatter my beliefs. None of us seek to have our beliefs shattered. They’re too heavily linked to our sense of self. So I could be just protecting myself from the truth.
But what about that highly statistically improbable event? Isn’t that a secular definition of a miracle? Can’t me living be called miraculous?
Nah. We’re not very good at big numbers. To most us, a one in one million chance makes something very unlikely. In reality, in a city the size of London, many events that are that unlikely happen every day. We’re just not good at taking that in. My own cognitive bias is to look at all the things that had to go right that day for me to walk away and go “What are the odds? It’s a miracle!”
The more I thought about risk, the more I realised that, in this entropic universe, where heat goes to cold and all order decays, the miracle wasn’t that I didn’t die that day but that I got through most days with no sense of threat to my life, even though the threats were there.
The only, secular, miracle I can find in my life is it’s persistence, despite the odds.