The Human Condition:

Not With a Whimper – November 11, 2012

… But with a sprained ankle. That’s the way life ends—or at least how it starts the final and irrevocable slide.1

As I grow older, the one thing I’ve learned that the young have still to discover is how adaptable and accommodating the human body, the human mind, and many other aspects of human life can be. If you maintain your body and brain, keeping both flexible and strong through daily exercise, challenging reading, animated conversation, complex music and puzzles, and occasional stress tests that require you to move outside your comfort zone both physically and mentally, then you can find health, a measure of happiness, and peace of mind. If you live within your means, save some money, buy insurance, and prepare for the unexpected, then your household can survive any number of economic shocks.

But that’s not actually my point in this posting. “Adaptable and accommodating” can also mean just the opposite: the body gradually shapes itself and its potential to whatever becomes your everyday way of life. I’ve been to that comfortable place, seen others go there before me—and now I’m trying to come back.

The young are, for the most part, gifted with healthy bodies, supercharged metabolisms, clarity of mind, and a future full of possibilities. Life is a golden promise. But what they don’t yet know is that life is also a succession of idle minutes, passing days, repetitive stresses and choices, accumulating habits, and suddenly passing years. The cigarettes, the drugs, rich foods, and other treats we once consumed only at parties and on special occasions eventually find their way into our fingers and our mouths every day. The book we put aside to watch a really stupid television show, because we were just too tired, becomes a dusty stack on the bedside table. The workout that we skipped on Monday is soon skipped on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, then for a week at a time, and eventually forgotten. The unpaid balance that we once tolerated on our credit cards “just for this month,” because payday fell a week after the “due by” date, slowly becomes the balance we carry from month to month and expect to pay off someday. Life has a way of catching up with us and becoming real, the norm, the expected.

And we adapt to and accommodate our changed reality. We carry the physical and mental debits because our resources are, of course, still boundless. We schedule our day around that little hangover which lingers in the morning. We carry the extra pounds because they really don’t slow us down that much.2 We pay the finance charges on our cards from month to month because we’re making more money now and we need more things to match our lifestyle.

Life has a way of creeping up, however. Soon we’re taking a glass of wine or whisky at lunch to chase the hangover that will otherwise fog up the afternoon. We have trouble bending over to tie our shoes and instead buy a pair of loafers we can slip into standing up. We take the elevator, even if we’re only going up a floor or two, because the stairs would leave us out of breath. We’re paying finance charges on the credit cards that have gradually become a noticeable fraction of the monthly rent.

My point is that we adapt to these stresses, we become comfortable with them. They are part of the life we lead. And meanwhile, silently, invisibly, without even a whimper, the boundless resources we once enjoyed in youth—and thought we could rely on in a crisis—are eaten up with the need to support these daily deficits. We go from being able to climb the steps of a picturesque lighthouse or the medieval towers of Bologna,3 to being winded by the stairs in a friend’s home. We go from running marathons to being unable to walk five miles if the car breaks down. We can still carry the weight, the strain of drinking and smoking, the cost of the debts—but we have arrived on a knife edge.

And then the unexpected happens, the jolt that takes us out of our daily path: we sprain an ankle, get stranded with a broken fuel pump, lose the roof to a freak windstorm. And what would have been an inconvenience in our youth becomes a life-and-death situation. We can no longer move our bulk from the chair to the table to the bathroom, no longer walk to find a payphone, no longer absorb the added cost to keep our house.

It’s certainly not the case that shedding our vices, losing the weight, and paying off the cards guarantee we’ll live forever. Everybody dies of something. But you don’t have to die of something silly like turning your ankle or running out of gas.

What applies on a personal scale also applies on a national scale. Like a person who’s become careless about credit card debt, our country has relied on deficit spending because we’ve always been able to cover the finance charges. The current mountain of national debt—$16 trillion and counting—won’t sift down like snow and smother us softly, so that we go out with a whimper. Instead, we will face a crisis—one more war we cannot avoid, an earthquake that shatters the infrastructure of an entire region,4 or some other unexpected national crisis—and the debt will suddenly become unsustainable. Our resources will have been eaten out from the inside, and the collapse will be fast and unavoidable.

We don’t necessarily want to live forever. But we also don’t want to die of something stupid. That would just be embarrassing.

1. The reference, of course, is to T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men and its last line about the way the world ends: “Not with a bang but a whimper.”

2. If you think about it, an extra fifty pounds is like packing two suitcases and carrying them strapped around your middle and across your buttocks. Most of us resist the effort to carry those two suitcases for a mile through the airport, yet we carry that much weight around with us every day.

3. It’s 498 steps to the top of the Asinelli Tower. I could climb them twenty years ago. Oh, what a view!

4. As I’m writing this, the East Coast is still recovering from the super storm called “Sandy,” with billions of dollars in damage repairs ahead of us. I woke up wondering if this is the sprained ankle that our economy has been shuffling towards for a couple of years now.