“The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.”
Even though Jack London wrote those words over a hundred years ago, he could have been thinking of America today. Today we spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money trying to prolong our lives rather than live them. We are not only afraid to die, which is somewhat understandable, but we are afraid to live as well. We are determined to eliminate all risk in life, but can we? Should we? And will it make a difference?
I first became aware of this phenomenon as I was walking by a local park. On one side of the park was a playground and on the other was an open field with a group of boys playing football and parents lined up around the field watching them play. At first glance it appeared that this scene wasn’t any different from if I had gone back in time fifty years. But upon closer inspection there were noticeable differences.
On the playground was a slide and jungle gym, a little fancier than when I was a boy, but similar. It wasn’t what I saw that seemed out-of-place, but what I didn’t see. Where were the two playground accessories that I loved the most on the days when my siblings and I would visit the playground? I didn’t see a teeter totter. What fun we used to have on that apparatus. One of us on either end, pushing ourselves up and down, seeing how high and fast we could rise and fall. Sometimes we stood on the fulcrum, straddling both sides and trying to maintain our balance to keep from falling off. It was really fun when my little sister shared the teeter totter. With the huge weight difference, she was helplessly suspended in the air and the only way to get her down was for me to exit my seat. Upon doing so, her side would fall down to the ground rapidly and the resulting thud might cause slight bruising or a tongue nearly bit in half from the impact. Why would anyone think to eliminate this great “ride” from the playground?
The other piece missing was my favorite one of all; the merry-go-round. Oh how we used to have a blast riding the merry-go-round. Sitting on the top of the bars on the outer edge of the circular ride while friends stood on the ground grabbing and pulling the ride in an attempt to increase the speed and as a result the centrifugal force. At high speeds it took all the strength we could muster to hang on and sometimes you had to let go; the result being a body violently thrown through the air, landing in the dirt a few feet away. Yes, a broken leg was possible and bruising and mouthfuls of dirt likely, but what fun the merry-go-round gave us. In some city council meeting the pin heads must have decided that little Sally Sue and Billy Bob might get hurt on the merry-go-round and teeter totter. No dodge ball or tag or running allowed (If you run, there’s always the possibility that you could stub your toe and fall down; resulting in potential bruising and scraping and much tears. Waaahh!)!
Thinking back to the fun of the playground, why is it that I remember these two rides and not the jungle gym or slide? Could it be that I had more fun on these two? And could it be that the reason I had more fun on them was that there was a certain risk involved? Think back in your life to the times when you had the greatest fun. In most of those memories I’m guessing that there was a certain risk involved. Jumping off of a swing set while at its apex was risky, but we did it because it was a blast. When I went skydiving a few years ago I found the experience exhilarating and one of the greatest rushes I had ever enjoyed. Was there a risk? Certainly; the parachute could have failed to open and I could have become a pancake on the cold, hard earth.
I hate to break this hard reality to you, but feel I must. Believe it or not, everyone is going to die. No exceptions. That you have any control over when and how is a fallacy. That you spend every waking moment trying to influence that eventuality is a shame. You may as well try to influence the climate or the amount of sun shining or the velocity of the wind. Trying to make everything we do safe is a fool’s errand. And for what? A little security? Ben Franklin said, “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” For each new attempted elimination of risk, we lose freedom. I find it ironic that the generation who gave us this line, “…do this, don’t do that; can’t you read the signs?” is now trying to tell us what to do and not to do via government mandate. “Don’t eat that, it’s not healthy.” “Don’t do that, it’s not safe.”
In New York City the amount of soft drink you buy is regulated; it’s not healthy. Your kids have to sit in a booster seat until they’re 19 years old (None of us ever sat in a booster seat and I don’t remember an epidemic of dead kids resulting from the oversight). The government now spends billions on ads on the radio designed to inform us how to protect us from ourselves. Once such ad is concerning food safety and it tells us in a condescending manner how to prepare and cook our food (many of these ads use children to lecture us; often with a whiny, lispy, annoying little voice). Did you know that you should keep raw meat and poultry away from ready to eat foods? What, you’re serious?! Did you know that 3000 people will die of food poisoning this year? Wow! That’s what I call an epidemic. 1000 people die from lightning strikes each year and I fully expect the government to run ads instructing us not to hide under a tree during a lightning storm. We are obsessed with health. And yet, everyone still dies and our longevity hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years.
Oh, back to the football game. As I approached the boys on the field, I noticed that they were in the five to six-year-old age group. Cute. I also noticed that they weren’t playing tackle, but instead were playing flag football. And then I noticed that they were all wearing helmets. Helmets? In flag football?! There was more likelihood that the little tykes would develop chronic neck pain from the weight of the oversize football helmets than get injured playing flag football. I shook my head as I walked away. Helmets in flag football?! Unbelievable!
What are we willing to give up trying to maintain an illusion of safety? What are we willing to sacrifice in order to live the fallacy of eternal health? Ask the man who is told he has cancer at age 50 what difference all those precautions and safety measures had on his health. I remember the phone call I received from Dad last fall. When he told me he had three months to live I was saddened, but not surprised. He was struggling with his health and was in much pain. The conversation continued and at one point he said, “Son, I feel like eating a cheeseburger.” What difference now were all those doctor’s restrictions on what Dad could or couldn’t eat? Choking back tears I said, “Dad, you go get the biggest, juiciest cheeseburger you can find and while you’re at it, have some onion rings and a milkshake too.”