Our Illusory Fears and My Case for Optimism
Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine is a huge book of 2016 pages plus an index of 78 pages and some additional ‘plates’ of illustrative photos. (Which you wouldn’t want placed by your evening meal.) A joke has it that a medical student fell asleep while reading this thing in bed and broke her nose. And it would be a nasty thing, heavy as some chunk of earthen conglomerate, to break your nose on, as it is chockfull of infections, afflictions and diseases … many too awful to describe. On late evenings, studying this huge work myself, I often wondered how it was I stayed alive? Every sort of organism both large and infinitesimal is out there bent on doing us in, or at least sucking our vital energies and/or gumming up the works – assuming that our own genes and inherent lunacy doesn’t sink us.
Often, I’ve imagined how fortunate it is that I’ve managed to travel the miles and do the plethora of tasks I do every day – meeting with the unforeseen, the unpredictable, dealing with the marginally employed and the intensely volatile – and stay alive.
I still marvel that I’ve been able to stay out of jail, as virtually nobody – even lawyers – fully or often partly understand the reams of city, county, state and federal laws and regulations we labor under. In Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent by Harvard lawyer Harvey Silverglate – “The average professional in this country wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day.” Imagine that. Our over-reaching laws and regulations seem vast as an ocean and as hazardous nowadays as going to sea ever was.
It’s a wonder I’ve been able to maintain some standing in a society which doesn’t allow much margin for error. Say the wrong thing, or even burp or laugh at the wrong time and you lose that sale, that career opportunity, that sexual opportunity, that social opportunity… I remember an article in the Seattle Times some years ago which was advising single women on handling home repairs. A general contractor advised that they could find a plentiful supply of cheap handyman labor, by utilizing those whose personalities had proved too volatile for steady employment.
I’ve wondered how the average person avoids bankruptcy. Monthly bills and direct withdrawals attach themselves like leeches. Insistent invitations to buy fill the media. Credit card prospects flood the mail. Contracts and guarantees are a minefield of fine print. The wife and kids always maneuver for another purchase. And when you go broke, as my brother advised me: “You don’t just run out of money. They gut you like a fish.”
I’ve wondered – in places beyond my grasp – how in the world the technology we depend upon doesn’t fail us? Each day I fear the Y2K equivalent of cyber crime, or cyber terrorism, or a simple identity theft. Or will some preteen hacker take control of my ‘smart’ car and run me into a tree?
As the years pass the devices we use pass beyond our ability to comprehend. I no longer fiddle with the car. My computer does things… I can’t say what they are. I can’t figure out the Apple TV buffering. Even the remote baffles. And the thermostat has become like Hal in 2001. If you happen to stumble and brace your hand against it in the night on the way to pee, the Lord knows when your next heating cycle will occur.
I worry about how us average Joes will stay employed. Statistically, we’re expected to retrain ourselves several times throughout our careers, while surviving to land that next job. We’re expected to rope up through networking, maintaining contacts, and staying on top of our fields through continual re-schooling by controlling our mindset and maintaining a positive outlook. What is going to happen to me when I get tired?! (Author’s note: I’m tired.)
I’m puzzled how the average person raises ‘survives’ more than one child. There is barely time to listen to all their demands! They have activities, destinations. They have medical, dental, and therapies. They either want lots of your complete attention and right now – or they can’t hear you! Their school work is a haystack of handouts, online links, and hop scotching through a textbook of printed and written assignments whose directions are far harder to understand than the assignment itself – and written as if for a fellow PhD in Educational Theory. They don’t attend every school day, nor always for a full day, nor do they always begin or end consistently. They need shots and permission forms and fees for anything detachable, plus lunch monies. And lately a community activity has been added to the required electives, plus a dollop of “zero tolerance” up to and including felony time, for an ala carte of adolescent transgressions. And, they’re up for anything their ‘in’ crowd peers might want to do, including jumping off a cliff, I would hazard.
How do we survive?
Well, in my optimism, I think of that weekend in my youth when my brother organized a trip down the Deschutes River in Western Oregon. Being the youngest member of the entourage and in a straggler position, I got the small two person life raft with these cute little oars. The river rushed past as I stood on the bank. I had to use the outhouse twice before embarking. But once I pushed off and gained river speed the travelling was quite pleasant. There were emerging rocks and downed trees and whirlpools and rapids with tall standing waves. There were lots of dangers to thwart by wiggling my two cute little oars. And looking back, this looks a bit like the situation of our lives.
I did well enough until I drifted into a whirlpool and started sinking. The raft filled. I went down, down… until the river was just under my arms. What a perspective. Again, just about as our lives as I’ve described. When, with a big whoosh! the inflatable sprung to the surface and further down the river we glided.
In retrospect we’re forced to say – in face of the evidence – that many of our fears and dangers are illusory. Though it certainly doesn’t seem so. But the evidence is – that we’re still here!
Which forms the wellspring of some real optimism.
And as long as we are alive, this evasion of all of these certain dangers keeps happening! There is no doubt about any of this! And surely this is the cause from some credible optimism.
Now I haven’t suffered the misfortunes of many, many people. Disease, tragic death, terrible accidents, war, famine, poverty and strife have stayed their distance. But even those for whom it hasn’t… as long as we are alive, it is hard not to make the case for optimism. Our lifeboat is still working.
So let’s have a smile, people, and thank our Creator, or as the atheists would have it, Mindless Happenstance. After we’re dead, it might be easier to build that case for pessimism.
Or, we might just be dead.