I have had a couple brushes with death in my short life. Misdiagnosed with the flu, I was not given antibiotics, and I wound up in a hospital emergency room with a bacterial infection in an internal organ and a fever over 103. Even after antibiotics cleared the disease, it was almost a month before I could walk more than a few feet at a time with my weakness. I am told I was also a very sick child when I was born, a month late and deep in winter. It was some time before I was allowed to leave the hospital after I was born. Also, the other day, I was taking down a broken shed, and the rusty aluminum scraped my hand.
The third thing I just said doesn’t sound serious, but before the invention of a Tetanus vaccine, that wound would be fatal. Lockjaw decimated communities. Simple cuts and scrapes on bits of metal left strong young men and women dead in days. Before the advent of the Tetanus vaccine, I would have died so many times of lockjaw. Think of every rusted nail that ever scraped against a toe, or punctured into a foot. Each one could have ended your life, once upon a time. The fact that lockjaw is no longer a serious illness in America speaks volumes to the power of modern medicine and the scientific method to save lives. Around 20,000 cases are reported annually, in America, and very few would be fatal with any medical intervention. Globally, tetanus still kills 59,000 people every year, mostly infants in underdeveloped countries, but even this is way down from 213,000 dead of lockjaw in 1993.
Modern medicine is the miracle we take for granted. Immunizations are an invisible wall against death. Child mortality rates are so low that most people don’t even know anyone who has ever lost a child, much less an infant. It is no longer a common thing. It has become a tragic outlier in the families and communities of the modern world. In developing countries… Well, the future is unevenly distributed, but hopefully everything will come together very soon.
There are few better measurements of human progress, if one is to believe in such a thing as progress, than the expected lifespan of each new generation, on average. Every generation sees a rise, until today. Every decision we make in our lives, from what goes into our bodies, to what we wear, to what we do, impacts our biology. Things as simple as standing in shade versus sun alters the very organism of the body. Did you floss? People who floss supposedly live seven years longer, if my dental hygienist is to be believed. Do you wear sunblock? Sun can damage skin to the point of cancer, and some skin cancers are deadlier than others. Do you eat a handful of nuts a day? It has been shown to lead to greater heart health. Such tiny, little decisions each and every moment can lead to greater or lesser health in some degree, to the point that people can be driven absolutely mad by it all. Or, like me, be so overwhelmed with health information, that it all must be pushed aside and ignored to allow room for the movement of a sentient body through living space. Too much information becomes more crippling than none. The return, then, of a kind of pseudo-mysticism around diets and exercise swells up in the terrible gap of knowledge and fear and the knowledge that there is far more in the world than any one person can possibly know, and new research is always spinning and spinning and spinning…
Enter the marketing machineries of this world with their fad diets, and failed diets, and exercise regimes that are supposed to extend life.
In all our revolutions, we live in fear instead of wonder. It is wondrous that lockjaw only kills a few thousand people in the world every year. It used to be such a deadly force. It is wondrous that heart attacks aren’t always fatal. It is wondrous that an antibiotic infection that would certainly have ended my life in a past generation, was turned away with a single pass of antibiotic medication. It is positively astonishing that cancer is often not a death sentence. Our families are full of children who live, instead of die. Do not fall back into mystical thinking, like the denial of vaccines or the ridiculous dietary fads that have no basis in scientific inquiry outside of the anecdotal studies of a professional marketer and/or athlete.
It’s a lot of information to digest, and there’s a lot of terrible data out there. In the future, what does not kill me will be bad data. The next major medical breakthrough we need is a filter to weed out all the bad information in the world.
When I am walking around, and living, I often look around me and wonder how this would kill me, in the past or the future. I wonder at how well we are, in the modern world, of staving off death. Every time I step on a ladder, I think it might be my last. Every time I plug something into a wall, I wonder at building codes that prevent electrocution and death. Every time a storm blows through, I stand behind a window, and I marvel that this storm is no danger to me. It should have been so deadly. It should have led to drowning, the loss of crops, the death of pack animals that keep me alive. Instead, I stand behind a sturdy window, gaze out, and watch the wind whip through the trees. I observe the rainfall in the garden, and any loss of crop is an inconvenience, at worst.
Every day, I wonder at the many tiny, invisible inventions and ideas that save my life – from good brake pads to good construction techniques to good water management. What does not kill me is the reason I have a future, at all, and the reason law and science matter. Innoculate the mind against the conspiracy theories and professional lie marketers with the knowledge that there is so much wondrous survival out there. Every step we take in shoes without hookworms in our footpads is the invisible triumph of futurism: Where life stumbles forward without danger and without any obvious limiting factors.