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Time Essay: Living Happily Against the Odds

6 minute read
Frank Trippett

“All you need to do to become ill in our modern world is to follow ordinary patterns of diet and life-style.” —Dr. Charles T. McGee

Inflation, Recession, Iran, Cuba, Unemployment, Taxes, Et cetera, Et cetera. Given the number, gravity and persistence of their country’s problems, Americans obviously need occasional relief from national worries so that they can at least try to enjoy their lives as individuals. Yet it has become harder and harder for people to find anything to do or use that does not come with some built-in anxiety. The trouble is that every-where they turn these days, one thing or another is posted with the red flag of danger, if not with the skull and crossbones of mortal horror.

Such is the impression created by America’s all-purpose early alert system. Day after day the air bleats and print blinks with warnings and alarms. Cancer alerts have become almost as commonplace as weather reports. Strictures on how to avoid heart attacks pop up everywhere. Preventive campaigns stir up a constant din of sermons against careless driving, against starting fires, against getting too fat. It is like the continual murmur of doom’s own voice.

The symphony of warnings even has elaborate seasonal variations. Christmas, for instance, is the time to avoid giving little Johnny toys that can maim or pajamas treated with carcinogenic flameproofing. But every season brings fresh cautions against some new menacing gunk found in air, water, food, medicines. This year alerts were raised about stuffs used to treat dandruff, insomnia, alcoholism and high blood pressure.

Clearly, the U.S. is now buffeted by a public atmosphere that has grown chronically and pervasively cautionary. Apprehensive outcries wail forth from broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, posters, labels, environmental journals, medical tracts, Government reports, even books. One of the books is a brand-new broadside by Dr. Charles T. McGee, a clinical ecologist of Alamo, Calif., who is quoted above. His 220-page polemic issues a general alarm about multifarious dangers that lurk in every nook and cranny of contemporary civilization. Even fluorescent lighting, he says, may, in some weird way, weaken the muscles. The book, billed as a “crash course in protecting your health from hidden hazards of modern living,” is entitled How to Survive Modern Technology. Anybody with a frail heart might not even survive the book.

Admittedly, modern times are fraught with real hazards, and no sensible person would sniff at prudent precautions. Still, it is hard not to shudder at the sheer volume of disquieting cautions, at the constancy, variety and intensity of the fearful clamor. Indeed, one may reasonably wonder whether the very climate of alarm itself has not become a hazard to health and serenity. Everybody’s psyche now takes a drubbing day in and out from the concatenations of danger. An American can scarcely make a move nowadays without being pushed into a state of alert.

Warnings about nutrients left out of the diet are as grave as those about pollutants included. Scotch and beer have joined the list of potables that may contain dangerous chemicals. So has mother’s milk, in which PCBS have turned up. Birth defects could be linked to caffeine from coffee or any source, it was reported just last month. Even peanut butter, as an occasional bearer of aflatoxin, has been flagged as a menace. Driving? Fasten the seat belt— unless discouraged by warnings that most of them do not work. On the road, even rest-room signs often gratuitously warn against VD. Flying? Remember that some pas sengers get ozone poisoning in those high-altitude supersonic jets. Sleeping? Doing it too little or too much is associated with shortened life spans. Prettying up? It seems that some hair dyes, among other cosmetics, contain malignant agents. Need ex ercise? Take heed that middle-aged joggers are constantly fall ing dead on the side roads. Feeling sickly? Steer clear of sur-gery-mongering doctors. Taking a pill? Make sure it will not hook you. Worried about cancer? That very worry may cause cancer, some say. Anybody thinking of fleeing might peruse an other recent book, this one by Dr. Robert A. Shakman. Its title: Where You Live May Be Hazardous to Your Health. Its implicit message: You can’t escape.

Enough. A complete list of warnings would fill a shelf of books. Plainly the 20th century has turned into the Age of Admonition. It is also clear that the atmosphere is distributing more than a bit of anxiety. A modern form of morbid gallows humor (“Life is hazardous to your health”; “Everything causes cancer”) has now become the respectable coin of small talk.

Only a recluse could fail to know somebody who uses less ingenuity in living than in worrying and guarding against subtle hazards. Perhaps the surest sign that the admonitory mood is taking a toll is the fact that Americans have begun to write advice columnists about the problems that all the cautions cause. Warnings about cholesterol in eggs, nitrate in bacon, caffeine in coffee (and, a while back, risky chemicals in even the decaffeinated variety) have sapped the fun out of eating breakfast for some people, it seems. Wrote one such: “I’d try bread and water, but I’m pretty sure that as soon as I begin to enjoy it, I’ll find out it’s bad for me.”

Such hangdog pathos is enough to provoke wistful dreams of returning to the vanished day when a person was guided only by folk wisdom: an apple a day would keep the doctor away. But there is no going back. Today the apple must be checked for sprayed-on toxins. The alarm system is here to stay. It would be foolhardy as well as foolish to suggest that it be shut down; it is, in truth, indispensable for guiding those who wish guidance. What is needed is a strategy for getting through life passably happy de spite all the ominous background chatter.

Though sophisticates have long sneered at him, Norman Vin cent Peale, who said that “you do not need to be a victim of worry,” was not entirely wrong. Thinkers more serious than Peale have construed a fearful attitude as a danger in itself. Jesus of Nazareth advised against fretting even about tomorrow. Psychologist William James saw life itself as a process of risk taking and thought it was debilitating to take risks too much to heart He urged people to will themselves to be confident of survival, to pretend confidence if necessary, allowing not even the “sweet’ cautions of scientists to undermine them.

Cynics may shrug at doctrines of willful optimism. Still Americans have a right to be optimistic. After all, they are living longer and longer. Perhaps each new alarm should be couplet with a dire warning that life is likely to go on despite all the dangers.

−Frank Trippett

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