In my very earliest days, I was a sperm. At least this is what I’ve been told. I can’t say for certain, because I don’t remember being a sperm, and it certainly seems like the kind of thing that would stick in the mind. More unbelievable is the idea that I was one of about a quarter-billion sperm, all darting and wriggling in a frantic attempt to reach a single egg. This is the only part that helps me understand why I have no memory of the whole episode. I don’t like crowds, especially in confined spaces, or where there might be a lot of splashing involved. To this day, I avoid small elevators and public swimming pools. Plus, the thought that I could have out-maneuvered so many other competitors is hard to grasp. Beating out a quarter-billion opponents would be like going on The Dating Game and being chosen by the bachelorette over the entire male population of North America. I never even won at board games like Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders, and those were usually against other five-year-olds.
So how did I manage to break through? I had no advantage over the others. I assume I was just another oval head and long tail. What I could’ve used was elbows. I have them now, of course, but all they seem good for is closing the car door when I’m carrying a lot of bags. They also come in handy when I get a sudden urge to take an extremely sensitive body part and crack it against a sharp edge or blunt object. But where were they when I needed them? With elbows, I might have forced my way through that crowd of sperm in record time. And maybe I would have had more energy to do with the egg whatever it was we ended up doing.
Motivational speakers like to refer to the large number of sperm that are present during conception, working it carefully into their speeches. They do this in order to make audiences feel special. “You were the only ones who reached the goal,” they’ll scream. “You were meant to be here! You’re all amazing!”
I’m not sure how true that is, either. For all I know, sperm have no interest in getting to the egg. Maybe they’re just happy to be out, and aren’t looking for any kind of commitment. It’s even possible that it was the other sperm who bumped me into the egg. I seem to recall hearing muffled laughter, and then a kind of sizzling sound and sparkly things flying around. But as I said, my memory of the actual event is fuzzy.
Either way, there must have been a great deal of pushing and shoving, and frankly, I find that image a little disappointing. Is this really how a human life begins? As a microscopic game of musical chairs? That doesn’t make me feel amazing. It makes me feel that I just happened to be in the right millimeter at the right millisecond. And if there was some force guiding me into existence — if I was meant to be here — then why involve all those other sperm? Why get their hopes up when they never had a chance?
Most of all, where is the grace? And the elegance? I watch flocks of birds and schools of fish — thousands of individual creatures — moving together in synchronized beauty. I see hundreds of sparrows perched on a telephone wire, lined up and evenly spaced. Imagine humans trying to do that. We can’t seem to attend a peace rally or get ourselves inside a Wal-Mart on the day after Thanksgiving without someone being trampled to death. Watch drivers approaching a traffic circle, and you’ll see more lurching, hesitating, and second-guessing than any starling or cod has ever experienced.
The explanation, I suppose, has something to do with our tendency to compete, while at the same time seeking to avoid too much close contact. As a result, we climb over each other to be the first ones into the movie theater. But once inside, we spread out, careful to leave at least one empty seat between ours and the stranger who’s already stuffing fistfuls of popcorn into his mouth.
What does all of this have to do with sperm? I don’t know. Maybe our behavior can be traced back to what took place in that bustling corner of the Fallopian tube. In order to get here at all, I probably had to be somewhat aggressive and opportunistic. And yet, that drive to propel everyone out of my way is gone. I sometimes find myself standing in the middle of a long line, and as soon as a new cashier opens up, somebody three or four places behind me rushes over to be the first one served. I’d never do that. When two lanes of traffic are merging into one, there are always several cars that go right to the front and then cut in, rather than wait their turn. No matter how hurried I feel, I merge patiently and politely. If another customer and I are about to enter the bank at the same time, I always hold the door for the other person, even though I know there’s a good chance I’ll end up waiting behind them for fifteen minutes while they make changes to their checking account and pay all of their monthly bills with rolls of nickels. What if I had behaved this way in my days as a sperm? I could have turned to the guy next to me and said, “Oh, no, after you. I insist.” Then where would I be?
There’s a lesson in here somewhere, and I’m still fumbling around for it. Maybe it’s that there’s a lot to be said for cooperation and sacrifice, but every once in a while we have to do what’s best for us. Even in a huge crowd, blending in may not be such a great idea, and self-interest isn’t necessarily the same as selfishness. Remaining invisible could be the first step toward non-existence. Now that we’re here, it’s hard to even conceive of that.