Appreciating The Gift
A few weeks ago a man came to repair the boiler in the flat I’m renting in Britain’s most picturesque city. As he worked, he told me about the various aches and pains he has to live with, his poor digestion, poor sleeping patterns, and his increasing forgetfulness. When he finished working on the boiler he turned to me and said, “I expect you’ve got all that to look forward to, in a few years, once you’re my age.”
In fact, he was twelve years younger than me. The difference between us was the sum of the lifestyle choices we each have made. His were made by default, simply doing what those around him were doing, with no thought regarding their results. Mine have been made by choice because I treasure the astonishing gift of life.
None of us did anything to merit our existence. Each human being who’s ever lived has been the chance combination of genes arising from a particular sperm fusing with a particular egg. A conception one month earlier or later would have created an entirely different person, as would have happened if a different sperm had fused with that same egg.
We are, every single one of us, the products of chance. For the span of a few brief years we get to exist and experience the world into which we were born. For far too many people, life is mostly a series of indignities and suffering which end only after painful sickness and death. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been by sheer chance alone born into the affluent West, life can be extraordinarily rich and varied.
Sadly, being merely apes with extremely limited intellects, we tend to focus on trivia and fail to notice the fact we’ve been granted the astonishing gift of a short span of existence. We squander and fritter our lives away, doing little, seeing less, and understanding nearly nothing. Worst of all, we cripple ourselves with illnesses and thus diminish the value of our brief moments on Earth because we make atrocious lifestyle choices.
In short, we fail completely to appreciate the one-time-only gift of existence.
We ought to wake each morning profoundly humbled by the fact we are alive. In this vast universe that began 13.8 billion years ago there have likely been very few forms of life that have developed even our extremely modest ability to conceive of abstractions and, for a few brief moments here and there, contemplate matters other than how to get our next meal and how to avoid being eaten in the meantime by one of the many predators waiting to consume us.
While none of us can do much to combat the incessant large-scale human follies that create so much misery on our delicate little planet, we can surely aspire as individuals to be more than merely receptacles into which large corporations pour an endless stream of toxic junk in order to secure good returns for their shareholders and pay enormous bonuses to their executives?
According to data compiled by the NIH-funded Buck Institute for Research on Aging and Age-Related Diseases in California, around 86% of us will die of chronic ailments, nearly all of which are strongly influenced by the daily choices we make. Although most people fondly imagine a peaceful and painless death surrounded by smiling relatives and a heavenly choir singing in the background, the harsh reality is that most people will die frightened and alone, in pain, confused and helpless, in an anonymous hospital bed surrounded by machines that make stressful noises while overworked nurses wait for the bed to become available for its next enfeebled occupant .
Prior to this squalid death, most people will suffer for the vast majority of their lives from ailments that are entirely unnecessary. Most people will lurch and waddle through life suffering from back pain and shoulder pain and joint pains. Most people will feel tired and will more often than not be constipated. They will suffer from constant inflammation, which will exacerbate the stressful effects of being overweight. Most people will feel perpetually dissatisfied and wonder why the pills they’re taking aren’t working properly. Most people will experience noticeable mental decline from their early fifties onward, often ending in neurodegenerative diseases that erase memory and alter personality.
This is no different from being given the most amazing gift imaginable and then leaving it unregarded under a pile of dirty clothes, never to be taken out and treated with the joy and gratitude it deserves.
Our problem, in the affluent and spoiled West, is that evolution has hardwired us to cope with environments utterly different from those we’ve fashioned for ourselves today. Thanks to the efforts of a tiny percentage of the population who are capable of coherent thought and reason, we now live in a world of astonishing technological marvels. Although 99% of the population has absolutely no idea whatsoever of how any of our shiny new toys actually work, we benefit from them despite our woeful lack of curiosity and our complacent abject ignorance. We are now surrounded by a superabundance of calories and we need never exert ourselves in any meaningful way. As a result, we genuinely live in Fat City. Yet this is a catastrophically unsuitable way for us to live.
We are primates evolved to do as little as possible because for 98% of our evolutionary history, calories were scarce and unnecessary activity (both physical and mental) burned up precious energy that would likely be needed for foraging for food or fleeing from predators. We also lived quite short lives. We are thus entirely unsuited for an existence in which high-calorie low-nutrition food is rarely more than a few feet away and where our life expectancy is three or four times what it would have been for our distant ancestors.
We’re hardwired to seek short-term satisfactions because for 98% of our evolutionary history there was no long-term horizon. Life was dangerous and we died early. That’s why, today, despite our vastly extended lifespans, people cram sugary fatty junk down their throats despite abstractly knowing that it is harming them. It’s why billions of people still induce cancer by smoking sticks of shredded tobacco. It’s why people slump on the sofa and gawp at mindless entertainment despite knowing that the human body needs regular meaningful exercise in order to avoid a wide range of painful and encumbering ailments. It’s why, desiring to reduce mental activity to the absolute minimum, people stare at their flickering screens that pump sensationalist nonsense into their brains rather than make any attempt to engage in more constructive pursuits. As a result, the age at which symptoms of dementia arise is decreasing each year, with younger and younger adults now beginning to evince the signs of mental decline.
And we owe it all to our lifestyle choices.
But we don’t have to make such awful choices. When we realize what a precious gift life is, and how very quickly it passes, we can cherish our brief moment in the sun and behave in ways that enrich rather than impoverish us.
We live at a moment unique in history when 98% of all human knowledge has been discovered within a single human lifetime. We no longer need to cower in man-made caves, praying to imaginary invisible magical creatures to spare us from the ills of the world. We are no longer so ignorant that we think a bacterial infection is the result of being cursed. If we rouse ourselves from our natural intellectual indolence we can learn astonishing things that will expand our mental horizons and enable us to see beauty where before we saw nothing at all. Pace Dawkins, Keats was wrong: staring uncomprehending at a phenomenon like a rainbow is far less wonderful that seeing it and understanding the physics behind its beauty.
If we rouse ourselves from our physical inertia we can discover how marvelous it feels to be able to exert ourselves and feel not nausea but energy and elation as endorphins pump through our veins and every single biochemical aspect of our bodies adjusts to help us feel better, more alive, and more positive.
There is simply no comparison between the exhilaration of hiking in the wilderness or taking an early morning walk in the countryside versus gawping at some ersatz entertainment while slumped on a sofa or endlessly stroking a screen in pursuit of brief dopamine hits. When we are out exploring, everything is active: our bodies, our senses, our minds. We are evolved to be out-of-doors and we are certainly not well adapted to a life of inactivity coupled to over-consumption of salty-sugary-fatty junk foods. When we give ourselves the gift of making good choices, we benefit in every way imaginable. Studies have demonstrated that a combination of healthy eating and regular meaningful exercise can push back chronic ailments and dementia by five years or more.
Not only do we tend to abuse our bodies but we also abuse our brains. We gorge on a diet of sensationalist nonsense that leaves us full of stress hormones and impedes mental activity. We rarely if ever attempt to acquire new skills or learn new ways of thinking. After leaving school, very few of us ever again bother to expand our mental horizons. Yet studies have shown that keeping mentally active (which means acquiring new skills and learning new ways of thinking, not merely repeating old patterns such as doing crossword puzzles or other rote-style activities) can push back cognitive decline by five years or more.
The combination of eating healthy foods, taking regular exercise, and continually learning new things can extend our “health span” by a decade or more. Instead of waking tired and plagued with aches and pains, we can wake refreshed and full of easy vigor. Instead of feeling thick-headed we can have the confidence of high-functioning cognition. Sadly, most of us think such gifts are beyond our reach.
Most of us believe we “don’t have the time” to live in a healthy way. We tell ourselves there’s no time to cook nutritious food from raw ingredients and there’s no time to exercise. Yet the fact is, regardless of whether we go for a morning run or sit slumped at the breakfast table desperately swilling down cup after cup of coffee in an attempt to feel less foggy-headed, we all have precisely the same amount of time each day. Most of us merely choose to spend it making ourselves ill. We consume toxic junk food instead of good nutrition. We consume toxic mental junk instead of studying subjects of importance. The average person in the West knows more about the imaginary worlds of sitcoms and soap operas than about any aspect of the real world, and the average person in the West spends more time slumped in a chair than using their legs.
So how do we begin to unwrap our wonderful gift of life and begin to appreciate it more adequately? How do we literally live in the present we’ve been given?
We can begin by forming better patterns. We humans tend to be feeble when it comes to willpower. Although we may want to lose some weight, we will inevitably eat that slice of cheesecake, cookie, or pie if it’s available. So if we want to reduce the amount of toxic junk we consume we have to begin by ceasing to purchase it in the first place. It’s a lot easier to snack on a banana or a strip of celery when there are no double-chocolate-chip cookies in the kitchen. Turning off our devices makes it more difficult to gawp and stroke as an automatic reflex to any moment of peace and calm. By reducing the prevalence of harmful products both physical and mental, we can begin to carve out enough space for more healthy choices.
At first this will feel to many people quite awful. When we’re accustomed to consuming toxic junk of all kinds, we naturally feel confused and distressed when we attempt to change. Our bodies and minds are conditioned to take in sickness-inducing inputs from the supermarket shelves and from the mass media. We feel adrift, uncomfortable, and confused when those toxic inputs begin to attenuate. It’s the same with exercise: when we attempt it for the first time it feels awful. We feel nauseous, we struggle to suck in enough air, and the next day our muscles seize up. But for those who persevere, things change. Our bodies begin to adapt and we begin to feel infinitely better than we did before. Over time, healthy choices become our habit. We begin to notice the wonders around us. We become better people in every way, being not only less sick but more cheerful and more able to cope with the inevitable vicissitudes of life.
A great many people are reluctant to make even small changes to improve their lives because they view such changes as a chore, something to be done reluctantly or ideally to be avoided whenever possible. So the first and most important change is to realize that when we give ourselves something healthy to eat and when we make time to do some exercise, we’re giving ourselves the best gifts imaginable. Many people try to make themselves feel better by adding to their collection of things they don’t need: a bigger TV, a newer car, yet more clothes to cram into an already over-full closet. But things don’t make us happy and things generally don’t improve our lives.
Carving out time for things that truly do improve our lives is to give ourselves every day the most special and most important gift possible. When we tell ourselves, every time we turn aside from the glazed donuts and diabetes-inducing sodas and drink sparkling water or unsweetened tea, that we’re gifting ourselves with health then our attitude begins to change. When we tell ourselves, every time we know it’s time to go to the gym instead of remaining slumped in front of a screen, that we’re gifting ourselves with health then instead of exercise seeming a chore it becomes a reward. Naturally this change of attitude isn’t instantaneous; like all important things, it takes time. But with repetition it really can change our attitudes and make healthy living something we enjoy. We’re as addicted to our toxic way of life as an alcoholic is addicted to drink or a drug addict is addicted to their narcotic of choice. People who are successful at recovery know this reframing is central to their healthy way of life: they don’t see avoidance of toxic substances as denying themselves; they see it as empowering because they’re gifting themselves precious health and vitality.
When we take a wild animal like a tiger or an elephant that’s evolved to roam over vast territories and shove it into a tiny cage, the animal becomes very ill. We too are not evolved to live inside tiny boxes reliant on flickering screens for the illusion of human company and social interaction. We have, like the sad caged animals, become very ill. Just because we created our own cages doesn’t mean we can escape their malign consequences.
For anyone truly wanting to live the precious moments we have been gifted, the answer is simple: open the door of the cage and step out into the sunlight. We can stop being passive receptacles of toxic junk food and toxic entertainments; we can make healthier choices. We can throw out our TVs, turn off our shiny devices, stop buying the junk that comprises more than 80% of every supermarket’s stock. We can stop enriching cynical fast-food executives by cramming their slop down our throats regardless of the evident harm it causes us. We can stop enriching avaricious media executives by gawping endlessly at the toxic sensationalist nonsense they spew into our heads in order to generate more ad revenues.
Or we can continue to be like babies trapped in the earliest stage of life: orally fixated and unable to focus on anything for more than a few seconds before wailing because our diapers are full.
Each of us can live an amazing life, properly appreciating the astonishing gift we’ve been granted. After all, it’s a gift that has a definite expiration date. We should live while we’re alive, not sleepwalk through our brief existence, much of which will be spent suffering from the various illnesses we’ve self-inflicted.
We can choose to live. It’s the best possible gift to ourselves.