Sunday, June 05, 2016

Malady

Have you heard of the sweating sickness? It was a plague that terrorized England, around the 16th century and killed thousands within a year, and then disappeared suddenly. No one really knows why. Symptoms include chills, pain, fever, sweating (obviously), and very quick death.

Have you wondered why we get sick? I always assumed it was a side-effect of the very existence of the germs within our bodies, that they didn't mean to make us sick. But sometimes, apparently, they do.

We know that there are billions of micro-organisms living in, on and around us, in a largely symbiotic fashion. In many ways, we would not be able to live without these "germs", and they without us to feed off of. But there are some greedier microbes that aren't happy with what they have. They don't want to live and let live. They, like fanatics of all kinds, want to spread their ideology (through biological terrorism) all over the world. What these creatures do is they make you really sick so that these microbes get a free ride on your fluids to other hosts. Sometimes, they even kill you in the process.

Of course, lacking brains, they are unaware of what they are doing. But then, some might say that ignorance itself is a sin, so I'll just go on judging them.

But getting back to the point, some germs make you sick so that they can spread. But sometimes, they evolve to become much too effective at their jobs. And such, it is thought, was the case with sleeping sickness. It was too effective- it killed its host before he even had a chance to shake hands with or sneeze at anyone else. This is one possible reason why the disease disappeared so quickly.

Speaking of disease, today is World Environment Day, and the Earth is sick, largely because of us. We are exterminating species, consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate and in general giving our poor planet a bad case of "the humans". It appears that we have now become evil parasites of the sort that make their host (our planet in this case) ill for their selfish gains. The only problem is, we don't have another host.

Perhaps, like the virus that caused sleeping sickness, we have become much too efficient at destroying nature and consuming resources, and maybe, just like that virus, we will die out too quickly. The Earth will rise once again from the ashes, and life may even go on. But for humans to go on, perhaps it's time for some introspection as a species. We know we can do better. We can fund research in the improvement of the efficiency and costs of renewable energy. We can work towards reducing population and conserving wildlife. We can change laws and change habits. We may need to change the very way we live. But at least we will live.

We may have become global citizens and today recognize humans of all shapes and colors as deserving of the same human rights. We have learned to extend our empathy across our borders. We must now learn to extend this empathy towards other creatures and towards our home. We only have the one.

In the words of Ron Weasley, we need to sort out our priorities.

Note: I read about the sleeping sickness in an entertaining and educational book by Bill Bryson called "A Short History of Nearly Everything".

Burn

I don't like pain. I can't imagine anyone does, but I actively avoid it. I especially hate the torture that is running. With all my heart, body and mind.

My heart tries to escape its cage, my body screams in agony, and my brain twists trying to fathom why its container is wasting all this energy for no good reason: running in circles just to get back to where it started, or worse, running in place!

Some of the aversion may be attributed to my belief that running hates me back. This may or may not have something to do with an exceedingly embarrassing incident involving a treadmill throwing me off like it was an ill-treated horse. I think treadmills can smell fear. I learned to stay far away from them, preferring instead the non-threatening cross-trainer, which is rather kinder to those of us who are weak of cardiovascular strength.

I've heard of the runner's high: some people actually experience exhilaration from the activity, apparently. But then, people in general are strange. I've also read that running comes naturally to humans. I considered writing to the author telling him of the counter-example I had found: me! After a while I just assumed that perhaps my fight-or-flight response is simply more geared towards fight: I don't like violence, but it can't be worse than running.

A month ago however, a strange feeling came over me. I wanted to learn to run. I am not entirely certain why, but it may have to do with pride. I refused to yield to a simple, mindless machine - and here I speak both of the treadmill and my body. I shall conquer.

And so, I ran. The first day, I managed an entire minute of jogging before clutching my side and fearing I might be having a heart attack.

The next day, I made it to two minutes.

The next, I ran for three.

And the next - well, you get the idea. Each day, I ran just a little bit longer. The last minute was always the hardest. The minute after, always the most triumphant. I was setting new personal records each day. They may have been rather modest as records go, but they meant the world to me.

I used loud music to distract my mind from the senseless exercise, and tried to trick it into thinking this was actually fun by smiling to release dopamine. And in this manner, I conquered first my mind, and then my body.

I can now run for about a half hour before giving up. I still strive to improve each day, either in speed or endurance. I may never run a marathon, and I may live with perpetually sore legs, but I can proudly say today, that I can run.

I realized that to run, you need to be in a Zen state of mind, one where you do not think of the result of the activity, and forget that you've been running for what feels like an eternity, and instead learn to live in the moment. You pretend that each minute is the first, that there was nothing before, and there is nothing after. There is only now. It gives you a feeling of freshness, of newness. Something to keep the pain away: both in cardio and in life.

Of course, there is pain. I can fool my mind, but I cannot fool my body. My calves burn every evening. But, it's worth it, to grow, to learn, to be stronger.

To paraphrase Ray Bradbury, it is a pleasure to burn.