Terry Pratchett said…

“When someone is saved from certain death by a strange concatenation of circumstances, they say that’s a miracle. But of course, if someone is killed by a freak chain of events — the oil spill just there, the safety fence broken just there — that must also be a miracle. Just because it’s not nice doesn’t mean it’s not miraculous.”

The birds have alighted upon him! It is a miracle!

This one comes from his book Interesting Times, which is a story about the Discworld analogue to China. In it, a series of improbable events occur – as they often do on the Disc – leading to all kinds of exciting outcomes. As also often happens on the Disc.

I noted this quote, however, because I’ve had a long-standing grudge against the word “miracle,” or rather how it is used by most people. If that surprises you, just wait until I start talking about “unique.”

One of the ways I hear it used is what the quote is talking about – that a miracle must, by necessity, be a good thing. You had a car accident and walked away? Miracle. Your child was born a month early and she’s healthy and growing? Miracle. You got a job offer just when you needed it most? Miracle.

At the same time, though, if you’re going to slap that label onto good things that happen unexpectedly or improbably, then you really should do the same for the bad. After all, the dictionary definition of miracle is: “An effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.” Note that it says nothing about that event being subjectively good or bad. It simply is. So the car crash that nearly killed you? Miracle. Your child being born too early to survive on her own? Miracle. Losing your job? Miracle. There’s no reason we should confine ourselves to one end of the good-bad spectrum.

The other problem I have with the way miracle is used these days isn’t touched on by the quote, but it’s adjacent enough that I feel comfortable bringing it up.

Look at that definition again. Note the words, “..that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.” Now I know that word usage changes over time, blah, blah, blah, but I have my limits and this is past them.

When you look at the miracles of the Bible, for example, they describe things that couldn’t be explained by contemporary understandings of the world. The Red Sea parting, Jesus turning water into wine, Lazarus coming back from the dead – these are things (if we make the assumption, for the moment, that they actually happened) that were utterly inexplicable to the people who experienced them. From their point of view, only a divine or supernatural force could have accomplished those feats.

But we live in the 21st century. That car accident you walked away from? You walked away from it because teams of engineers and scientists worked hard to figure out how to build a car that would survive a crash. The factory workers made sure to assemble it properly so that it would perform the way it’s supposed to. Decades worth of research and legislation went into crafting safety standards. You survived that crash because of the work of human beings, and it doesn’t take special knowledge to see that it is so.

This girl spent weeks planning that fire…

The same thing with a premature baby – a team of skilled doctors and nurses kept that baby alive. Dedicated parents gave as much time and money as they had to see to it that their daughter had a chance. And centuries of medical knowledge and experience by hard-working men and women gave us ways to ensure the health of the most fragile among us.

As for your “lucky break” job? Well, certainly it sounds lucky. But chances are, you did the work of looking for jobs, making contacts, and doing work that was good enough and reliable enough to be noticed. The timing is nice, but coincidences do happen, and this was one of them. In each of these cases, no divine or supernatural agent is necessary, so calling any of them a miracle is just plain wrong.

Now if your car had actually phased through the object it was supposed to crash into, like a ghost sliding through a solid wall, then that might just be miraculous. If your baby aged two months overnight, thus ensuring that she would be safe and healthy, then that might just be miraculous. If you woke up the day before your unemployment ran out, opened your eyes to discover that you not only had a job, but you were at your job, and you had had that job for years already – that might just be miraculous.

Those things don’t happen, though. I know you want them to happen, but they don’t.

The over-use of the word “miracle” basically does two things. First, it debases a perfectly good word, robbing it of what makes it powerful and special. Secondly, and more importantly, it demeans the work and knowledge and skills of human beings. The pilot who lands a crippled plane, the firefighters who run into a burning building, the doctors who save a dying patient, the soldier who rescues his comrades – all of these people have worked hard to gain the skills they need to do what they do. In many cases, they risk their lives and their well-being to serve others. To call what they do a “miracle,” to ascribe their lifetime of effort to the hand of a mysterious divinity, is to take away all they have dedicated their lives to.

Frankly, I respect them too much to insult them that way.