Editor’s Note: The following is the conclusion of Professor Forrest McDonald’s 2002 address to the last class he taught as a regular member of the faculty at the University of Alabama—known as “The Speech.” Dr. McDonald retired thereafter from teaching.
The other pre-requisite for living sanely in an insane world is an attitude toward life, which I can describe no further than as gratitude and joy in the very fact of one’s existence, and in the existence of one’s fellow human beings. The cynic responds, why should one be joyful in life, when in no time it is followed by death, and when with each person‘s death the whole universe, for that person, ceases to exist? My answer strikes me as reasonable, though perhaps it is merely a rationalization of my own joy. Scientists, as we know, deal in improbabilities rather than, as was once thought, in absolute laws. Anything that happens with the probability of, say, 10 to the millionth power to one, is pretty much a sure thing. If the theory of evolution has any validity (I regard it as somewhat silly, a confirmation of Chesterton’s comment that people who don’t believe in God will believe in anything), if it does have any validity, I say, what do you suppose the probability of man’s existence is? I am speaking of the movement up through the countless environmental changes and mutations necessary for the evolution from primordial ooze to humanity. I can assure you that it is considerably more far-fetched than a ten-to-the-millionth-power-to-one shot; it is approximately as likely as the spontaneous transformation of every atom in this room into an atom of plutonium.
And given the existence of human beings, the probabilities against my existence – or yours – are again as high as those against the existence of man. You can attribute this to God, or to big bangs, or to sheer blind luck; all I can do a shout hallelujah, I got here! My God, I got here! In the face of this colossal fact, I must exult in my gratitude, for everything else is trivial: no matter what the uncertainties, whether things are better or worse, whether I am hungry or well fed, whether I am sick or healthy, or cold or comfortable, or honored and respected, or despised and kicked and beaten, even that I shall soon be leaving, all is trivial compared to the miracle that I got here. Fellow miracles, let us rejoice together.
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