For many of us, especially in the more privileged socio-economic sections of society, life is just one long self-improvement project that we know in our hearts will sooner or later end badly. As someone said, despite our best efforts to eat right and exercise regularly, mortality is holding steady at 100%. There is no end of diet and exercise fads to keep us engaged in the effort to lose weight, improve flexibility and stamina, and ingest enough antioxidants to slow down the aging process. Some studies have shown that the free radical theory of aging may be hokum, but the studies are easy to avoid.
And then there is what psychologists call the licensing effect, a phenomenon whereby when one does something good, one feels subconsciously licensed to do something not so good. Somebody who runs a couple of miles will feel “licensed” to have that banana split. I have a relative who spent a lifetime ingesting mega doses of vitamins and nutritional supplements and is now suffering from ailments associated with type 2 diabetes brought on by obsessive overeating. He once told me proudly that his heart was in great shape for a fat man, presumably a result of the vitamins and supplements.
What we all want, I suppose is to live as long as possible in good health. An extra decade wearing diapers in a nursing home isn’t very appealing. Being active and fit in one’s eighties sounds pretty good. I had a friend, Ben, who was active, physically fit, and mentally sharp in his eighties. He had had a hard life as a young man—he was a Holocaust survivor—but a combination of good genes and clean living had paid off. He didn’t drink in excess or smoke. In the winter he did cross country skiing, and in the summer, he used to ride his bicycle across the city to my house for a game of chess, which he usually won.
One day, chopping firewood, Ben had a stroke. He didn’t know it was a stroke and left the hospital before the diagnosis was complete. As a result, he had a second stroke and became paralyzed on one side. He lived another ten years in utter misery. Had he not been in such good shape, of course, he probably wouldn’t have survived the strokes. He used to say he wished he had smoked and chased women. I think he actually had chased women. For me, an upside of his condition was that I started winning more of the chess games.
My current self-improvement project involves going to the gym a couple of times a week, although I spend an inordinate amount of time sitting instead of walking the rest of the week. My wife and I are trying to eat more slowly, chewing and swallowing what we have in our mouths before taking another bite. Eating slowly may be yesterday’s fad. Thank God neither of us has gone gluten-free. I’m convinced that having a couple of bourbons every night is healthful, and my cardiologist hasn’t said it isn’t. Maybe he’s humoring me.