The Better I Was

At threescore-and-ten years of age, plus a few, I am no longer cavorting on ice-rinks and athletic fields-of-play with the same wild abandon that characterized my youth.  Not even close.

My ice-hockey skates have lain, undisturbed for lo, these many years, in a box in my storage locker.  My inline skates were recently given to my grandson, whose feet, amazingly, have grown to my size.  And my baseball gloves (the ‘relic’—floppy, scuffed, and worn; and the ‘newbie’—still-shiny, with a lovely, leathery smell) lie beside each other on a shelf I never look at.

My competitive pursuits these days consist of golf (from the forward tees), tennis (‘doubles’ only), and snooker (on tables with oversized pockets).  My comrades and I—no longer so quick, strong, and skilled as once upon a time—are unhurried, more frail, and prone to error now.  And that’s on our good days!

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I’m sure the same refrain runs through their minds, as through mine: O, how the mighty have fallen!

Not that I was ever that mighty, mind you.  The visions of grace and glory ever running through my youthful head were more likely delusions of grandeur.  And the triumphs I always looked forward to were more often trials and errors.

It might have been said about me at various times over the years (snidely, of course, by persons with varying degrees of sensitivity) —

  • He’s a legend…..in his own mind.
  • He’s not as good as he once was; but he might be as good once as he ever was.
  • He’s not a has-been; he’s a never-was!

However, the one I deem most accurate, given my propensity for self-aggrandizement, is probably—

  • The older he gets, the better he was!

That one comes closest to the truth.  When I absolutely ‘crush’ a drive off the tee now (which is rare, and which means about 150 yards), I bemoan the fact that I used to regularly hit it almost twice as far.  Not true.

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When I double-fault into the net at a crucial point in the match (which is not-so-rare), I protest that I used to reliably smash aces past my opponents.  Also not true.

And when the cue ball ricochets off the ball I intended to sink, and itself literally leaps into the pocket (which is often), I smack my forehead and exclaim, “What a fluke!  I used to make those shots all the time!”  But I didn’t.

It strikes me that the phrase ‘I used to…’ is a prominent part of my conversation these days.

I suppose it’s a form of self-defence to claim a level of excellence that never truly existed, an attempt to ward off the all-too-obvious failings of the flesh brought on by rapidly-advancing years.  Even more fragile than my aging body, after all, is my vaunted male ego.  Yet sadly, the first gives out before the second.

I recall a computer-translation into Russian of the old saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  When a Russian-speaking person was asked to re-translate it to English, it came out as, “The wine is good, but the meat is rotten.”

Exactly how I feel!

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Still, I continue to declaim the glories of my yesteryears to all who will listen (the number of whom is fewer and fewer all the time, I am noticing).  I am out there whenever I can be—on the golf course, at the tennis court, around the snooker table—rarely winning at the games, but always seeking the former stardom I pretend to remember.

“The important thing is not who wins,” I try to tell myself.  “It’s who shows up to play.”

And strangely, the showing up is somehow made easier by a still-burning desire to do better next time, to improve, to regain the degree of mastery (illusory, I know) once taken for granted.

After all, the older I get, the better I…..well, you know.

Intelligence and Change

If the history of our planet and the existence of life upon it were to be displayed as a clock-face, with its beginning at twelve o’clock, the appearance of the first humanoid beings—our distant, distant precursors—would not occur until the hands had swept around to the merest sliver of time before twelve again.

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Life itself, however, in its earliest, most basic form, would have begun much earlier, when the hands were approaching two o’clock.  The difference in real time is about four billion years, based on the fossil record so far uncovered.  Bacteria, for example, are a subset of prokaryotes, the earliest type of life on earth.

Life existed, in other words, for four billion years before the first hominim stood up on hind-legs, discovered oppositional thumbs, and (possibly) wondered who or what (s)he was.

All this time later, modern humans claim supremacy over the planet and everything living in its embrace.  Such foolhardiness, as we shall see.

We do so, I suppose, out of a belief that we are the most highly-intelligent life-form yet evolved.  Our basic intelligence—distinct from other species because of our imagination and curiosity, which allow us to ask such questions as Why?, How?, and What if…?—varies widely among individual humans, but is demonstrably more advanced than that of other species.

If the specie-specific intelligences of all life-forms, as we measure them, were arrayed on a graph, the human sort would be a tiny triangle at the very top of a much larger triangle, the lower intelligences of inferior life-forms spreading out below ours.

But that ranking may be misleading because of the definition of intelligence we apply in order to do the grading.  If the essential purpose of every known life-form is to perpetuate the species, to survive, and if each group’s success at doing so is the ultimate measure of intelligence, then our ranking would certainly be much different on the graph.

Very recently, a study undertaken at Indiana University posited that the earth might presently host almost one trillion distinct species, of which less than one-thousandth of one percent have been identified.  We might imagine that we are one of the very few species among them to possess an awareness of the others’ existence, but that awareness may not matter much.

A parasite life-form, firmly attached to a host, may not be cognitively aware of its host, but it thrives and reproduces because of their symbiotic relationship—even as the host dies.  The trillions of bacteria that live on our bodies, most of them in the intestinal tract, may have no cognitive awareness of us, but they are essential to our survival, and they reproduce exponentially.

In fact, it has been argued that our human bodies are nothing more than carrying-cases for our microbiome, a coalition of genes from several different species, only one of which is human.

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Most bacteria are beneficial to us, but certain types, pathogenic or disease-carrying, can be harmful.  They exist in three main forms—cocci, bacilli, and spirilla—and reproduce so quickly that they can overrun an otherwise-healthy organism, causing illness and even death.

Another species posing a threat to us, perhaps the smallest and simplest life-form of any on earth, is the virus.  By themselves, viruses are inanimate, requiring a host in which to multiply and grow—which they do by invading a host-cell, causing it to produce infected cells that attack other cells, and eventually killing the host.

The drive to survive among bacteria and viruses is relentless.  Human intelligence has inspired the development of methods to combat them—antibiotics, such as penicillin, amoxicillin, and tetracycline for bacteria; vaccinations and antiviral drugs, among them acyclovir and interferon, for viruses.  For a long time, these have been effective.

There is some evidence, however, that pathogenic bacteria and viruses are evolving into organisms with an immunity to the drugs we administer.  This comes as no surprise, really, because all living things evolve over time through a process of random mutation and selection.  The alarming thing is that these ‘superbugs’ may be outstripping our ability to develop new drugs to combat them.

Imagine, for instance, if all our defenses against bacterial infections and viral illnesses were to be rendered useless.  Which species would survive, the highly-intelligent one of which we are a part, or the simple, ruthless ones that have existed for the better part of four billion years?

And if not us, then which of the species is truly the most intelligent?  The human one that spawned Newton and Marie Curie, Mozart and Dylan, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa?  Or the simple ones that have ensured their survival over billions of years on the planet?

As Einstein once wrote, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

But history tells us that, although humans are not naturally resistant to every bacterial and viral infection that might assail us, we are naturally resistant to change.

That is a problem.

 

Dilemmas and Decisions

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that your father’s dotty old Aunt Hilda—whom you haven’t seen in forty years, and who recently died at 103—left you, as her only heir, the sum of twenty-five million dollars, all in cash, and twenty-five cats who shared her last abode.

And let us further suppose that, after placing the cats out for adoption and depositing one million of those dollars in your personal chequing account to cover immediate lifestyle changes, you now needed to decide how to properly invest and grow the remaining twenty-four million.

To whom would you turn for advice?

Firework of dollars

Would you enlist the help of reliable, established bankers, investment counsellors, financial gurus, and market analysts, perhaps?  Learned and experienced people whose profession it is to help other people make money, even while being reimbursed for their efforts?  Let us call this the elite option.

Or would you call on twenty-five of your closest friends who, in return for the chance to party with you and celebrate your great, good fortune, would come up with a plan as to how you should invest the rest?  That plan could be approved by a majority vote of 13–12, swayed perhaps by the most persuasive of the group, rather than by the most knowledgable.  Let us call this the populist option.

Another example: suppose you have been recently diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, out of the blue, and that you have very little time to decide on the best course of action from a number of medical options that might, possibly, save your life, although there are no guarantees.

To whom would you turn for advice?

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Would you, in addition to talking with your loved ones, consult with your physician, specialists to whom (s)he refers you, and other experts in the field?  Would you seek second, third, even fourth opinions from people who have studied their entire lives to deal with critical situations such as yours?  Let us call this, again, the elite option.

Or would you gather together concerned family members and friends, all of whom love you and wish the best for you, to ask, by majority vote, what treatment plan you should follow—the established medical option, a naturopathic or homeopathic approach, or maybe the experimental route (which would require travel to a foreign country for procedures not recognized in your home and native land)?  Let us call this, again, the populist option.

In these examples (deliberately simplistic, I know), there are dilemmas confronting you and decisions you would have to make.  To whom would you turn in such critical situations, the elites or the populists?

Two major countries are currently dealing with such dilemmas.  The United Kingdom recently voted, in a simple-majority referendum, to leave the European Union, of which it has been a member for the past forty-three years.  The long-term ramifications of this decision have not yet been clearly enunciated, much less experienced by the people who voted.  But ramifications there will be, socially, politically, and economically.  For generations to come.

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To whom did the UK turn to make such a momentous decision?  To their elected members of Parliament, who might know a thing or two about the issues, presumably their ‘best and brightest’?  Or, as they have been described, sometimes disparagingly, the elites.

Or did they opt to leave it to the people at large, the ‘great unwashed’, to use a phrase coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton?  Or, as they are often referred to, usually reverently, the populists.

As we know, the populist approach was chosen, the people spoke (even though many of those who voted had no clear notion of what the EU is, how it has affected their country since 1973, and what its future benefits might have been), and a decision was irrevocably determined.  And it is left now to the elites, the people’s duly-elected representatives, to deal with the aftermath.

The second major power, the United States of America, is currently in the throes of a presidential election, a grotesque carnival showcasing democracy as it has come to be practiced in the twenty-first century.  Two candidates have been, or are about to be, nominated for the final run-off a few months from now.

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One is disparaged by her opponents as being from among the elite—kow-towing to wealthy, influential financiers, interested only in lining her own pockets, favouring big-government policies and programs, and inherently untrustworthy.

The other is mocked and ridiculed by his opponents as self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, and catering to the populists—seeking to capitalize on the worst instincts and fears of those who consider themselves to be, perhaps with some justification, downtrodden, ignored, and oppressed by the wealthy and powerful.

It is, indeed, a dilemma that faces the American republic.  Should the right to decide be restricted to citizens who are intelligent enough, sufficiently informed, and suitably engaged in the process to be trusted with such a critical matter?  The elites?

Or should everyone have the inalienable right to vote, regardless that a sizable number may be ill-informed to the point of ignorance of the issues, isolationist to the point of xenophobia, and armed (many of them) to the point of absurdity?  The populists?

In a faraway time when the world was comprised of isolated nation-states, interacting only minimally and infrequently with each other, a form of democracy that enfranchised every citizen might have seemed a good idea.  Government of the people, by the people, for the people, to quote Abraham Lincoln.  Few decisions made by such nations would have impacted severely on any others.

Today, however—when no nation is an island, when every nation is inextricably bound up with every other nation, when every hiccup and sneeze on the international stage has consequences—can the world afford to leave major decisions in the hands of those who know nothing of the potential aftermaths of their actions?  To those who take no steps to learn, to become informed citizens, to engage with the issues facing their country?

I confess, I do not know.

To preserve and enhance your multi-million-dollar windfall, to whom would you turn, the elites or the populists?

To perhaps cure your illness and save your life, to whom would you turn?

To preserve a peaceful, live-and-let-live world for all of us, to whom would you turn?

Dilemmas.  Decisions.

And consequences.

Life and Death

Just what is it that makes life worth living, anyway?  Is there a universal, one-size-fits-all answer, or is the answer situational, dependent upon the circumstances in which we each find ourselves?

And what might that answer be?  Is it happiness?  Good health?  Sex?  Wealth?  Perhaps the ultimate aphrodisiac, power?  Or some combination of these?

The existentialists among us might claim the answer is personal fulfilment, harmony with the world around us, inner peace.  Alone though we are, they might say, we are nevertheless connected to others, but on our own terms.

The religious among us might declare life’s significance arises from a meaningful relationship with one’s creator, in whatever form that creator might be rendered.  At this point in time, however, they seem unable to reconcile their competing visions with everyone else’s.

The afflicted and dispossessed peoples of the world might proclaim that life, being an endless procession of hunger, thirst, and terror, is not worth living at all.  And who is any of us, never having experienced their realities, to disagree?

But let us suppose, cheerfully, that everyone we know has found ample reason to live, to carry on, to survive.  In the face, sometimes, of personal tragedy, severe illness, serious setbacks of whatever ilk, they have persevered, even prospered, and gladly proclaim life to be the greatest gift of all.  They are, from all appearances, joyful, optimistic, and strong.

I recognize myself among this happy crew.  Wanting for none of the necessities of life, surrounded by family who love me, blessed with friends who are supportive and caring, I rise each day with a positive outlook, sure this blissful state will continue for years to come.  To state the obvious, life is to be lived.

So what do I make of the current debate swirling around us about a person’s right to an assisted death when the time comes?  How do I square my belief in the meaning of life with a possible wish to end that life at some point?  Are these two concepts even compatible?

For me, it comes down to a fundamental, primal instinct that life exists beyond this earthly planet we inhabit.  The vast universe in which we float is, itself, alive—a pulsating burst of energy, ever-expanding, interminably large.  And an infinitely small fragment of that energy, in whatever form it manifests itself, is what powers life in me.  It is my life-source.  Some, more religious than I, might call it a soul.

So when my time is up, as surely it will be someday, I take it as an article of faith that my spark of life will rejoin the universe from which it sprang—still alive, still burning, but in a vastly different form.

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Comforted by this belief, I do not fear death’s inevitability.  I do, however, harbour apprehensions about the manner in which that death might transpire.  Having been blessed, so far, to live a life worth living, I have no wish to spend whatever number of months or years in a diminished state, waiting helplessly for my life-source to reattach itself to that whence it came.

Perhaps I shall die suddenly one fine day.  Here one moment, gone in the next instant, no assistance required.  Still alive in the universe, to be sure, but departed from this realm.  I’d be happy about that—but not too soon, of course.

Lingering on, however, past the stage where my mortal coil can function properly, holds no attraction.  So I have come to the conclusion that I should be allowed and empowered to facilitate the escape of my spark of life from my failing body, and set it once again on its eternal journey in the universe.

The true meaning of life for me, it turns out, is the power, not to end it, but to release it from a failing, earthly body—freeing it to roam, as the poet, W. B. Yeats, once wrote, “…among a cloud of stars.”