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Sometimes it seems the universe has it in for us, and I’m not talking the current state of civic affairs. I’m talking about the countless ways one can come to harm, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Probably way more.
Space is completely unsafe, of course. We know this from all the cheesy sci-fi movies we watched as kids, in which asteroids and meteorites and Martian death rays rained down on luckless spacemen like driven snow. Today’s astronauts don the equivalent of hazmat uniforms before they venture out to fix so much as an errant door knob.
Even here on earth things can get dodgy. I became painfully aware of this recently when I cracked my skull and badly injured two toes – at the same time. I had been crouching over the bathroom floor, cleaning errant hairs and dust balls (how do they manage to congregate so abundantly?), and in true no-good-deed-goes-unpunished fashion, stood up and smashed my head against an open cabinet door while simultaneously twisting the middle toes of my left foot under the full weight of my body. “Ouch” does not begin to size it up, and it took all my will power not to slam the cabinet door off its hinges in a righteous spasm of pain and fury.
Fortunately the scalp wound did not require stitches and healed fairly quickly, and the toes, while turning a revolting shade of purple, were unbroken and responded to the wonderful twin treatment of ice and ibuprofen.
But it got me to thinking, which is one plus about a column: just about anything – good or bad – is fodder for journalistic rumination. In this case the thought was how easy it is for us to hurt ourselves. We all know it’s dangerous outside (inside too – more accidents occur at or near home than anywhere else). Aside from the coming “twindemic” of flu and coronavirus, there are risks abounding everywhere: cooking over a hot stove, driving your car, crossing the street, even sleeping.
While on a walk recently I noticed that from a certain oblique angle of sunlight I could make out a curtain of dust traveling along the wind, particles thick as rain but a thousand times smaller and more numerous. And I realized: guess what? They’re always there, these flying dust particles (it’s just we hardly ever see them), carrying all manner of possible pathogens.
Even breathing isn’t totally safe.
But that’s OK: If it were a riskless world, we’d feel free to do all manner of stupid things.
Take masks. While it’s drummed into our heads that wearing a mask significantly reduces exposure to the COVID-19 virus and helps prevent its spread – surely the most community-minded thing we could do in these dangerous times – many people still fail to mask up. According to a recent Gallup poll, some 18% of Americans, nearly one in five, admit to rarely if ever using a mask in public.
“A simple ask: wear a mask,” the sign says. But from what I see fully half the people around town don’t wear masks, or wear them below their nose or under their chin, at half mask, as if in mourning for the free play of their nasopharyngeal tubes. Full confession: I don’t always mask up properly either.
We all sort the world according to perceived risks and rewards and act accordingly. The kid on a motorcycle shooting past you on the highway: Is it a death wish or mere joy ride? Doubtless he thinks the odds are in his favor, as they usually are. Until they’re not.
But the older we get, the less likely we are to zoom around like that kid. Age and maturity weigh us down with sense and responsibility, sometimes too much: we grow too cautious, afraid to take risks and enjoy life fully. Going out the door every day entails some degree of risk, but we do so knowing that to live otherwise, crippled by caution, would be not to live at all.
As Jennifer Worth (aka nurse Jenny Lee) said in the wonderful memoir and series “Call the Midwife”: “Health is the greatest of God’s gifts, but we take it for granted; yet it hangs on a thread as fine as a spider’s web and the tiniest thing can make it snap, leaving the strongest of us helpless in an instant.”
But she also said, “Sometimes in life one has to take a chance. Without risk, there’s no possibility. Without potential loss, no prize.”
Good luck out there.