Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On taking care of yourself.

I just read a very moving obituary in The Economist about a soccer player who was also a medical doctor and a social agitator. He died at the young age of 57, directly after "a dinner with friends which his weakened liver couldn't take... As a doctor and ex-midfielder, he knew he should not have done it." This man, a Brazilian soccer player known as Socrates, traded years of life for a rich meal and too many cocktails. Granted, he lived a lifetime this way, probably pushing his body too far, but I have to wonder about this attitude. The writer of the obituary grants him a pass for such behavior: "As a philosopher he sealed his death warrant with his usual wit and serenity."

The man was very admirable in his fight for democratic reform in his native Brazil. But I take issue with this prevailing attitude that an opulent, hedonistic lifestyle is a fair trade for years or decades of good health and life. I've often heard people cheerfully say that they'd rather not live if they couldn't eat steak and butter and smoke their cigarettes and swill their brandy/beer/wine/whathaveyou. Though I completely understand how unsatisfying a salad can be in lieu of prime rib, I'm still puzzled by the willingness to ignore dire warnings from doctors in favor of fleeting pleasures.

This reminds me of my feelings when I heard about the untimely death of Stieg Larsson, the author of the excellent Millennium Trilogy. When I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was filled with admiration for a writer who's method is so completely different to my own. I felt I learned a lot from him about how to build a character. But my pleasure at reading his books is tinged with a bit of anger, because if he had taken better care of himself, there would be more than just the three books for us to read and enjoy. He had an immense gift, one I greatly envy. He could write in a way that captures the imagination of millions of people all over the world. This puts him in the company of very few writers. But he squandered this gift on three packs of cigarettes a day and habitual disregard for his body's need for rest. In short he smoked and worked himself to an early grave. I did not know him, though I wish I had because he was a courageous advocate for human rights in his work as a journalist. Still, I feel personally insulted by his neglect of his own health. How dare he treat his health so poorly when he could write so well?

I sound petulant, I know, but this is my honest reaction. I resent when the talented, the courageous, the brilliant among us let go of life so easily. We need Socrates here among us still. We need Stieg Larsson. Someone needs you, whoever you are reading this. The good, righteous people of the world need to stick around as long as possible so that they can continue to illuminate the dark side for the rest of us. Life is such a beautiful gift. Let's not treat it carelessly. Let us be reverent. Let us all take care of ourselves.

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