The Greatest Gift Has An Expiration Date
Although we’ve evolved to be permanently wanting more, contentment is a single breath away
Every morning, as consciousness returns in the pre-dawn of a gloomy British November, I think of how wonderfully fortunate I am. The drizzle falling persistently on the rooftop above my head doesn’t touch me and I’m warm and comfortable underneath the inexpensive duvet I bought from Sainsbury’s on the day after my arrival in the UK. My stomach is pleasantly empty and I know there’s plenty of food in the kitchen, some of which will soon be powering me through the morning.
I roll out of bed, thankful for the fact that despite more than sixty years of existence I’m free of the aches and pains so many others report as being a near-constant fact of life. The only aches I occasionally feel are localized muscle soreness the day after a particularly demanding tab or a tougher-than-usual workout, and such soreness is a transient sign that I’m continuing to do what is necessary to be healthy and happy.
When I perform my ablutions, every single morning I am aware of how pleasant it is to do so in comfort and that a single touch of a simple lever will suffice to remove all the evidence. No need to squat in the rain over an open hole which must then be covered with soil, or over a plastic sheet which must then be carefully packed into a Bergen and carried away so as to leave no trace.
Breakfast is a hot cup of milky coffee and some carbohydrates, not merely cold water and something cold and bland from a ration pack. Each morning is a pleasure for its sheer indulgence, so difference from hard routine in the field. Each mouthful I take reminds me of how pleasurable my life is, how easy and leisurely and effort-free.
It is a privilege to live like this.
The apartment I’m renting is modest. I could afford something far grander, but I have no need of space I wouldn’t use and I have no desire to attempt to impress anyone. This “graduate student” accommodation, with its budget sofas in the living room and the heat-scarred wooden dining table, are more than sufficient for my needs. I’m warm, dry, well-fed, and there’s room for my home gym equipment so I can stay on top of my self-administration during yet another UK lockdown. Every run I undertake, every workout I do, every set of stretches I perform, I regard as a gift to myself. Being able to take time to exercise is a joy of which I’m always conscious.
And yes, there are many days when it would be easier to be idle but I’ve learned that every day is enhanced by physical activity. Our modern lifestyles are far more toxic than people seem to realize and so I largely abjure what most seem to regard as essential to their existence. Every day I undertake some form of strenuous exercise for at least an hour because I know that being healthy enables me to enjoy my life to the fullest degree possible.
And, frankly, it feels fabulous.
On top of all this, I have employment. Over the last several decades I’ve managed to find myself on the wrong side of each recession and financial meltdown that’s hit the world economy but this time around I’m miraculously insulated thanks to a consulting engagement with a client who continues to extend my contract each time it approaches its end-date. Better yet, thanks to our media-induced global coronapanic, I’m not required to cross the Atlantic twice a month and suffer all the adverse health impacts such an absurd travel schedule would inevitably impose on me. I can simply sit at my generic flatpack desk and work from home. Which means I can run in the morning, have a workout, go shopping, brush up my less-than-stellar Russian language skills, have a light lunch, and then ease into work sometime around 13.00 as my US client begins to come online.
Frankly I can’t imagine a more congenial way to earn a living.
And every month I put most of my earnings aside for the future or use the excess to pay for things other people need, because I’m not interested in spending my income on fripperies. Retail therapy has never held any appeal for me. My priorities are comfort and practicality, which lead me to be perhaps the most unfashionable person you’ll ever meet.
My diet is based on decades of research rather than on faddish nonsense contained in some transiently popular best-seller written by yet another doctor who has absolutely no idea whatsoever about health. As a result, my weight has remained constant over the last thirty-five years, though as I age it becomes progressively more difficult to maintain muscle mass. Thus I am losing a few grams each year and slowly the realities of growing old must be factored into my workout routines and into my diet as inevitably everything about the body gradually grows less efficient as RNA copy-errors proliferate and proteins fail to fold correctly.
Each meal is a carefully-chosen conjoining of the inputs my body needs in order to function properly. Plenty of vegetables and fruits ensure good bowel function and essential micro-nutrients ensure good cellular function. And because I’ve bothered to read the scientific literature rather than swallow nonsense from newspaper headlines and glossy magazines, I don’t go chasing “superfoods” or dietary “quick fixes.” Anti-oxidants? Perhaps it’s time to learn the salient details of the Haber-Weiss reaction and about what triggers mitochondrial replacement…
Every meal I eat at home (and I eat at home at least 95% of the time) is made from raw ingredients because cooking is a pleasure, even when it’s cooking for only for myself. Processed foods are unfit for human consumption so, being a human, I don’t consume them. It really is that easy. Of course, there are occasional indulgences but they are the rare exception rather than the daily rule. As a result, I don’t suffer from the range of ailments that are sadly so typical these days. Just as my daily exercise is a gift to myself, so is each meal. I don’t “forgo” or “deny” myself slop and junk; I indulge myself in a wide range of flavorful and healthy foods. I know precisely what each ingredient provides and why I’m eating it and I feel the benefits every minute of every day.
Apparently some people look at things like donuts or a bacon-cheeseburger & fries with a desire to consume them. I look at such things with horror, knowing how awful I would feel for days afterward if I were to self-harm by eating something like that: heavy, bloated, salt-sugar-fat rush followed by energy drain, constipated, and with my skin smelling unpleasantly of cheap cooking oil. Compared to a delicious cup of hot vegetable soup flavored with chicken stock and wild thyme, there’s simply no contest.
While many lament the passing of the years and the ever-more-rapid approach of the grave, I marvel at the astonishing gift of life. The random conjunction of an egg and a spermatozoa that created a unique individual — me — is something I did not earn. The fact of my existence, the fact I can inhale air and perceive to some degree my environment and in some ways perform intentional actions is, frankly, quite amazing.
Every second of life is the most marvelous gift imaginable and all the better if portions of that life are experienced in relative comfort and security. There are many who do not get to enjoy the years I’ve had, and all the defeats and disappointments I’ve suffered over the convoluted course of my life are as nothing compared to the time stolen from those who die young.
Perhaps people who grow up in ease and plenty simply don’t understand how fortunate they are. Perhaps it takes an unstable and unsafe childhood spent in what are now euphemistically termed “developing nations” to appreciate the many benefits that automatically accrue from living in one of the OECD countries. Such benefits are hard-won and easily lost, which is why I so often lament the follies of our modern age in which mindless populism acts as an acid, dissolving everything we should protect and corroding our sensibilities.
This is why I don’t partake very much in social media, why my phone is off for more hours of the day than it’s on (and why I don’t have all those “must-have” apps), and why I haven’t owned a television for three decades. The ceaseless clamor of neuron-killing noise that comprises “entertainment” seems to me no less harmful than the appalling slop people cram down their throats every day. The incessant babble of low-IQ personalities, the lowest-common-denominator talk shows and sitcoms and soaps and quiz shows and reality TV, the endless social media posturing and the desperation for “likes,” all seem purpose-made to stunt the human intellect and reduce us to nothing more than permanently anxious trash-cans into which a never-ending stream of mental slime is poured.
When we decouple ourselves from the constant barrage of noise generated by revenue-seeking organizations and individuals all trying to grab our eyeballs for a monetizable moment or two, we can become aware of the still calm moments lying unregarded all around us.
The wind rippling auburn leaves and parting them from their branches.
A moment of warmth as approximately 10¹⁷ photons per square centimeter complete their 1.5x10⁶ km journey by interacting with molecules of human skin.
The delicious taste of water after a 20km run.
Easing oneself into sleep after a long and enjoyable day.
Looking up at the stars on a crystal-clear night in the desert and thinking about all we’ve learned of this vast and complex cosmos over the last 120 years.
The fewer the days ahead of me, the more precious each one becomes. There will be a day when I can no longer hug my son and tell him how proud I am of him and how much I love him.
There will be a day when my brain no longer consumes glucose to power neural activity but instead serves as food for bacteria and worms.
There will be a day when this miracle I call my life is over, just as there were billions of days before that egg and that spermatozoa happened to fuse more than sixty years ago. There have been trillions of potential lives that never came into existence. Mine did.
Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing should be taken for granted.
Each moment of life is the most astonishing gift imaginable.
Let’s all try to appreciate this gift while we have the time to do so.