Years ago, I read of the experiences of a volunteer who moved to an impoverished country in an effort to make a positive difference in the lives of its suffering people. His initial observations led him to conclude that the community was indolent. They had no ambition, and preferred sitting around and chatting to making any kind of effort to improve their situation.
After sharing their lives for a while, however, he realized that they were not so much lazy as malnourished and exhausted. Living under a blazing tropical sun, with a diet deficient in both quality and quantity, and no access to medical care, it's a wonder they managed as well as they did.
I thought of that story when I re-read "The Luxury of Feeling Good" at The Occasional CEO.
There exists in our modern world the presumption—or maybe better—the luxury of feeling good. Some combination of the right food, enough sleep, exercise, aspirin and flu shots, and access to real medical care when required have been foundational to my decades in the workforce. ... I know there are unfortunate people who suffer without relief, but most of my co-workers through the years have been able to function comfortably on a daily basis thanks to the many blessings of modern life, from coffee to cold packs to dentists to Tylenol, that keep us upright and productive. What makes the luxury of feeling good so special is that we are among the very first generations of humankind to expect each day to be pain-free and generally comfortable.
I'm at the age where I no longer take health for granted. Too many of my friends are dealing with broken bones, replaced joints, arthritis, and even strokes and cancer. I ache more than I'd like, and even getting out of bed reminds me that my muscles and joints don't work as well as they once did.
Did I say I don't take feeling good for granted? Actually, I do. Most of the time I don't even think about it, till suddenly something hurts, and I start moaning and whining. Here's a glimpse of what the high achievers of generations not that far back had to put up with:
[Eli] Whitney entered Yale with forty-two other freshmen and graduated four years later with only thirty-eight living classmates; if my undergrad class had suffered death at the same rate, we would have lost 133 students of 1,400. On break between school terms, Eli himself nearly died of an unspecified disease, what his sister called “Hypo.” A few years later he was struck down with malaria, the effects of which incapacitated him time and again throughout his life. Then, barely recovered, he headed to New Haven, Connecticut, to commence manufacturing and found the town awash in scarlet and yellow fevers so virulent that he could not employ a steady workforce.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain [commanded] Union troops at the Second Battle of Petersburg in June 1864. Chamberlain was shot through the right hip and groin, a wound so serious he was given a deathbed promotion and recorded as deceased in Maine newspapers. ... With peace, he served four terms as the Governor of Maine and went on to become president of Bowdoin College. Chamberlain practiced law in New York City. He pursued real estate interests in Florida and railroad interests on the West Coast. At age 70 he volunteered for duty in the Spanish-American War but was rejected. He died at age 85 due to complications from the wound suffered at Petersburg.
Joshua Chamberlain had a full, rich, active, successful career. Nothing seemed to slow him down. But we also know that from the moment of his Petersburg wound in 1864, he was forced to use some kind of primitive catheter and colostomy bag. He underwent six operations to try to correct his wound. He suffered pains, fevers, and infections throughout most of his life. One of my friends at Gettysburg said, "I think Chamberlain had a urinary tract infection for the last fifty years of his life."
Have you ever had a urinary tract infection for a day? Did it make you want to run for governor?
Keep in mind that these are people whose sufferings and accomplishments have been recorded. Let's not forget the everyday men, women, and children who raised crops and reared children, put dinner on the table, endured long journeys, and built cathedrals, all without aspirin, let alone antibiotics.
This means that the last few generations in America have been blessed with enormous advantage. It's not just that many of us get up in the morning and "pursue our passion" instead of having to plow the fields or milk the cows. It's not simply that we can get warm in the winter and stay cool and productive in the summer, or that we have clean water to drink and indoor plumbing. Perhaps our greatest single advantage over prior generations is the ability to work and live comfortably and pain-free.