Hope I Die Before I Get Old

Well, so much for that plan.

Definitely still alive, I’ve spent the past 2 weeks reaping the benefits of modern medicine. The problem that put me in the hospital and the medical treatment I’ve received have added up to something approaching “advanced interrogation techniques” (I’ll tell you anything — make it stop!).  

I did have a lot of time to think, however, while lying in bed waiting for something good to happen. I reached some small conclusions and a big one.

One of my small conclusions:

A doctor who is “on call”, responsible for off-hours phone calls from patients, shouldn’t be unavailable for hours at a time. But if an “on call” doctor can’t take calls for some reason, there should be another doctor who serves as the first doctor’s backup. Then, after repeated failures to reach Doctor 1, the answering service can contact Doctor 2 instead.

Another small conclusion (with apologies to the nursing community and anyone offended by discussion of bodily fluids):

If you have fluid draining into a plastic bag, and the bag becomes rather heavy as it fills up, in such a way that the drainage mechanism may no longer function properly, reject your nurse’s advice to empty the bag “when it fills up”. Instead, empty the bag “before it fills up”.

And my big conclusion, with a little background first:

Some people are extremely careful about diet and exercise. Others eat whatever they want and avoid exercise whenever possible. Most of us occupy some middle ground. Personally, I eat too much food that isn’t good for me and don’t exercise very often. I’ve never seen the point of doing otherwise, since I’ve never been very concerned with the state of my body and never wanted to live an extraordinarily long time. I’ve been content to drift along, eating what tastes good and avoiding perspiration if possible.

Having been hospitalized twice in the past 12 months for kidney-related problems, however, I now understand that I’ve been missing something important about diet and exercise. I’ve always thought the point of eating well and working out was to achieve a positive, healthy state — to be one of those happy, early to bed, early to rise types who can be so annoying to the rest of us. But that’s not the point at all.

The point of eating well and working out is to avoid the incredible pain and discomfort of serious illness and the medical treatment that goes with it. It isn’t a matter of getting something good; it’s a matter of avoiding something bad.

You might say that, in this case anyway, getting something good and avoiding something bad are just two sides of the same health-related coin. You can’t have one without the other. There is certainly some truth to that, since there’s a single path leading to both goals. But in terms of motivation, there is a big difference between trying to achieve something really good and trying to avoid something really bad. In my case anyway, I’ve never been interested in achieving a wonderfully healthy state. Mediocrity has been fine with me. 

Having experienced the extremely unpleasant downside of a poor diet (and, to a lesser extent, limited exercise), I find it much more motivating to try to avoid this kind of downside in the future, if I possibly can, than to seek something positive. At this point, if I have any sense at all, I’m going to eat better and exercise more. Of course, there’s no guarantee that changing my habits will insure that I won’t have to go through this kind of crap again. We all know that life isn’t that predictable. On the other hand, if you want to avoid something really bad, you should do what you can, if the cost of doing so isn’t that great. That’s just being rational.

Hence, my big conclusion:

Not being motivated by the prospect of getting something good, I’m going to focus instead on what I’m desperate to avoid. Avoiding pain can sometimes be a much better motivator than achieving pleasure. If I don’t want to be tortured again, I need to try something different. 

Philosophical addendum:

It occurred to me while writing this that philosophers (Western philosophers anyway) have tended to discuss the pursuit of pleasure more often than the avoidance of pain. As you might expect, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an article called “Happiness”, but none called “Unhappiness”. The article on happiness contains 397 uses of the word “happiness” and 6 uses of “unhappiness”. 

To be fair, however, Jeremy Bentham defined “happiness” as the predominance of pleasure over pain. He argued that: 

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think … 

Yet how can one serve two sovereign masters? Do pleasure and pain somehow work together, like the two ends of a seesaw, always giving coherent direction (“You, boy, go up now!”)? I don’t think so. Pain isn’t merely the opposite of pleasure. It’s its own phenomenon and deserves at least equal consideration, maybe more consideration, than pleasure gets. But we have a cultural prejudice that says it’s better to search for the good things in life than to avoid the bad. That isn’t always the case.

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