In 1986 I remember watching a movie, written by Oliver Stone, called ‘8 million ways to die.’ The title always struck me as unusual, given it was just a run of the mill cop thriller, but thinking about it, there are a great many ways we can die. Maybe not 8 million, but probably not far from it.
Humans, by nature, are very good at developing ways to cure illness and prolong life through better technology, medicines, education and communication. Indeed, according to The Office for National Statistics, the average life expectancy in Britain today is around 80 for men and 83 for women. A century ago it was 51 for men and 55 for women. There is one statistic that, in my view, sums up very clearly increasing longevity and it’s when the Queen sends a telegram congratulating anyone reaching their 100th birthday. This has been a tradition in Britain since the reign of King George V. Back in 1917, when the first 100th birthday congratulatory telegrams were sent, Buckingham Palace dispatched just 24. In 1980 it was 2,000, in 2016 it was 14,500 and by 2037 it is estimated they will send around 111,000.
While prolonged existence is something we should be grateful for, there is more to life than longevity and it begs the question, is society now becoming too focused on preventing death, rather than enhancing life? No one wants to die prematurely, but one thing is for sure, some day we are all going to die. It’s what you do with your life that counts, not its length; nicely illustrated by the philosophical adage “Your life is made up of two dates and a dash. Make the most of the dash.”
I believe it was the comedian Billy Connelly who, when responding to the advice that his excessive smoking, drinking and hard living could shorten his life by two years, said “That would be the two years dribbling and incontinent in a care home, no thanks.” Although said for comedic effect it does emphasise, in a light-hearted way, that life is for living, not existing and perhaps a balance needs to be struck when it comes to excessive ‘health and safety’.
We are bombarded daily, via news bulletins and social media, on how to live a safer, more secure existence by doing more of this or less of that. Much of this advice is based on various research, statistics or government advice. The problem is, lots of it is contradictory and at times just incongruous. For example, one research paper tells us red wine is good for the heart, the next reveals it can cause dementia. When I was young, too much butter was bad for us, today experts say butter is fine again and sugar is the new diet demon.
It’s not just diet though, its recreation too; we now have a situation where we are becoming institutionalised, in the name of health and safety, to minimise any risk of accident, injury or upset and being compelled to live our lives according to the latest government advice. It seems the government is slowly deciding how we must live our lives. Cynical perhaps, but I have always believed that the vast majority of government advice is for the benefit of the government rather than the people. Trust me, drill down far enough and the principle reason is usually money or power. Why else are there calls for certain groups of people to be denied NHS treatment because their lifestyle is deemed more at risk than others. This is wrong, a state funded NHS is great, but not at their expense of the freedom to live our lives as we want to.
I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and recall a childhood full of adventure, fun and excitement; climbing trees, rock climbing, go-carting, swimming in rivers, exploring caves, sledging, snowball fights, homemade fireworks, conkers, campfires and fishing. The vast majority unsupervised, outside and miles from home. Sorry, but no matter how good the 3D virtual headset on the latest electronic video game is, it doesn’t quite provide the same fun and adrenalin rush of freewheeling, with your mates, down a country lane in a homemade go-cart with no brakes or a crash-helmet, with the wind in your hair and flies in your nose. Yes, we has scrapes, torn clothes, bruises and the occasional broken bone, but it was great fun and the risks worth taking. That is why, I really believe, we need to readdress the risk v fun ratios to modern recreation and pastimes.
Recently, in the aftermath of the Canadian truck killer, a security expert was on the BBC advising people, vising public places, to ensure they scan the area, make a note of escape routes and places of cover in the unlikely event of a terrorist bombing or a mad van driver attack. The depressing thing is, in our modern risk averse society, a great many are going to follow this advice and it won’t be long before people will be conducting risk assessments before going to the shops, pubs, cafés or parks.
Given the choice of being a victim of a rare and random event or living in perpetual fear, I’ll take my chances; better to have lived and enjoyed life for a short time, than exist in misery or constant apprehension. Perfectly summed up by Land Rover’s slogan of: “One life, live it.” Indeed, we should.
This article first appeared in the Newcastle Journal newspaper 3 May 2018