Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Learning to live: Weighing the odds

Not long ago I received medical advice to undergo a complex surgical procedure to correct a birth defect I had been aware of for the past 18 years. I'm a perfectly healthy person otherwise, and even the congenital insufficiency of which I had been told I suffer doesn't really affect me in my daily life. However, if I don't act now I may still feel perfectly healthy for a couple more years, but it won't last for ever and things will likely start gradually deteriorating in the longer run, affecting my overall fitness and eventually seriously reducing my functionality. I could wait and undergo the operation later, perhaps several years in the future, but I will be older and perhaps less healthy by then, meaning that there will be a greater risk. The average success rate of the operation is 98%. I accepted the medical advice, and the odds of success, and will undergo the operation now--that is to say in the near future--rather than later, but it made me think. Life is a risky business.

The Austrian painter Egon Schiele lived from 1890 to 1918. Many of the works he produced during the 28 years of his life can be seen in the Leopold Museum in Vienna. 'Entschwebung' (see above) is one of them. It was painted in 1915. According to the description that accompanies the displayed work in the museum, "a partially withered meadow, which symbolizes the world, is the backdrop to the act of dying of two individuals. The lower figure still touches the ground with his feet, but his legs are about to give way. The top figure is dead, he levitates."

As one grows older, 'learning to live'--the theme of this brief reflection--turns increasingly into the challenge of learning to live comfortably with the end of life in mind. My feet still touch the ground, quite firmly actually, but thoughts about that margin of two percent of unsuccessful operations enhance perceptions of the odds of life. At any age, life is already often a balancing act of weighing the risks now against potential opportunities later. Relative certainty regarding life's affordances in the short run are balanced against the greater uncertainty of what can potentially be achieved in a longer term perspective. But the older one grows, the more limited the overall time span becomes in which short and long term considerations must be accommodated, until, eventually, the distinction starts disappearing altogether. By then, the transition between still touching the ground and already levitating becomes a smooth one.

1 comment:

Nana Premadi said...

Dear Jan,
First and foremost, you have my love and best wishes accompanying you as you walk through this.
Thank you for sharing this thought and feeling. It came in time as I myself am going through a similar tunnel of thought, and therefore feel your note as a great help.
There is nothing trivial when it comes to life, and the subtleties in the weighing of every little detail perceivable are perhaps what makes life worthliving and beautiful after all.

Wishing you all the best and success.