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The Greatest Show on Earth

Before I get into the meaning of the lyrics that caught me in this song, let me fan boy for a couple of minutes. I am new to the band Nightwish, and they are completely amazing. The quality of the composition is mind blowing, and the production of their live performances has rocketed going to one of their concerts to near the top of my post Covid bucket list. What do you expect when you couple Symphonic Metal with the Uilleann Pipes, low whistle, and a couple of the most amazing vocalists I have ever heard. I’ve put a link to the Youtube video with the lyrics below. It is long, at over 20 minutes, but worth it. The part I am interested in for this post is near the end. I recommend going all of the way to the end of the video, as the narration keeps going, and the visuals are stunning.

The song is inspired, and named after the 2009 book by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

He also narrates parts during the song, including the passage that it the subject of this post. The song is a journey through the evolution of the world, and the rise, and ultimately fall of human society. The passage I want to discuss is as follows

“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;
But who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara.
Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.
We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people.
In the teeth of those stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here
We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds.
How dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state
From which the vast majority have never stirred?”

Tuomas Holopainen – Nightwish – The Greatest Show on Earth

This resonates with me on many levels. The first line causes a state of confusion at it would make no sense to most people. I think this is deliberate, knowing that the act of pondering this confusion has the effect of opening up the subconscious to what is to follow. The explanation that follows is one of appreciation. So much in society at the moment in negative. Social media, main stream media, everyday conversations, all seem to be negative. People everywhere are protesting something, complaining about something, and in some ways bemoaning their very existence. It is as if they can never be content, always wanting something more, or something different.


The message that I take from these words is one of appreciation. Rather than complaining about our lives, we should be appreciative that we have a life to live at all. I feel this sort of contemplation is of increasing value in today’s society. The negativity needs to be balanced with something. Certainly in the past, this was balanced by hope, often awarded by organised religions that offered eternal salvation for having a lived a good life. I feel that these days, religion has less relevance in providing this hope, so we increasingly need to look within to find a positive meaning to life. This is all about perspective. About understanding that we are very lucky to be born, regardless of what we achieve or accumulate during our short lives. I think the appreciation of this goes along way towards balancing out the negativity we see in the world today.


This passage also offers hope. I love the way it looks at the possibility, even potential for what our gene pool has to offer. While it is chance that we are born, it is also chance “who” is born. It could be that the next person born on this planet could be the greatest artist, scientist or philosopher ever to exist. If they are born, there is also the possibility that they will discover, and reach their potential. I often reflect on how we are evolving as a species, and as a society, but this makes me think that while evolution is slow and relentless, there are still endless possibilities for advancing the human condition that may not yet have even entered the gene pool.


I love the introduction of the idea that to just be born is a privilege. Everyone on the planet should feel lucky to have been born, because it is a privilege, not a right. Some of us treat life like winning the lottery, then complaining bitterly that the prize was only a million dollars, because the prize the week before was bigger. In many ways, I think the more affluent the society a person is born into, the less they have this sense of appreciation. We spend our lives comparing our condition to those who have more, and bemoaning the shortfall. Imagine if we spent more time comparing our lives to those who have less, or never lived at all. How would that change our perspective on things? That having a life, even an ordinary one is an amazing privilege.


Personally, I have had a long struggle with finding meaning. Of feeling that I need a purpose, and that I should have a calling. Of feeling aimless, and that I should be doing more. Being more. This puts it in perspective. I am one of the lucky ones that got to be born. I should, and am grateful for that.


The last message I take from this is the idea of impermanence. This is one of the things I really like about Buddhism. The idea that we are here for a limited period of time. The understanding, and acceptance of this idea helps enormously in dealing with materialism, and the fear of loss. In dealing with uncertainty and change. We live our lives terrified of loss and death. This fear robs us of fully being present in our lives, and living them to their fullest potential. If we accept that we are incredibly lucky to have had the chance to have lived, and not being born is the norm, rather than the exception, then surely this can lead to a far greater acceptance of the fact that we will some day not be alive. And that this acceptance will free us from the fear that prevents us living to our potential.

If you haven’t listened to the song, do so. It is worth it. Let me know what you think.

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