“I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make
itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when
I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then
her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have
lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy
and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance.
However...who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art
exaggerates’? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted
that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do
those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I
took holidays, I had my life.
“But time...how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We
thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined
we were being responsible but we were only being cowardly. What we
called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than
facing them. Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions
will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical. I had wanted life not to
bother me too much, and had succeeded—and how pitiful that was.”—Julian
Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
I came across an unexpected epiphany this Christmas through an
acquaintance. I knew him perfunctorily, mostly through work. He’s
reserved, boyish. One would normally talk to him of business, politics
and policy. At one event I discovered he was a reader.
He had the kind of smile you see on people who believe in the bounty of
the world, because the world’s been good to them. When I saw him at a
party, he looked slighter, substantial. More human. I thought I saw
something in his eyes, a glitter of mortality. There was a reason. He
could have died twice over, a sudden massive death. He knew he had high
cholesterol but he thought it was under control. He felt no pain. He was
a runner, training for a marathon. Never felt fitter. One day he
fainted. He was driving. He was lucky his car halted on a quiet road. He
said what we were both thinking. If he were on the slopes of Lady Young
Road or the highway, he would have died. He felt lucky. I saw it in his
eyes over and over again. The shock: “I could be dead now—but I am
standing in a party.”
If the fainting hadn’t killed him on the road, his heart would have done
him in. He had one of the deadlier forms of the disease. Silent. With
no symptoms. Tests revealed that one of his arteries was 90 per cent
blocked. In November he had a stent put in his heart. He’s only around
40 but I could see on his face what nearly dying did to him. It took him
on a dizzying ride. He said it wouldn’t have bothered him. He wouldn’t
have known a thing if his car had fallen off a cliff or smashed into a
pole. He wouldn’t have known anything if his heart had failed him. It
was his children.
Not seeing them grow. Not being there for his wife. She was the great
love. He was surprised at people’s concern at his heart, at his
fainting. He was more loved than he knew. There was marvel in his face.
He added wryly that he would have had a bigger funeral than he could
Now, he wanted to remember, to savour his life—the exuberance of being a
boy risking his life on the torrent of a canal on a flimsy piece of
plastic in Hong Kong. He said he belonged nowhere, but rushed to
correct it. He was a child of the Empire, with Anglo-Indian mother born
in India, and a South African father, a childhood in Hong Kong and
He knew that he had a life worth examining, polishing, delving into the
mystery of it. He suddenly felt the most important thing was to go walk
and walk, to climb the White Mountains in Crete, alone, to think. I
think it was to marvel.
I know health and tests are boring and scary. Like exercising. Keeping
our weight down. Like checking cholesterol, blood pressure, doing
colonoscopies, stress tests, thyroid function tests, prostrate PSA tests
for men, pap smears for women. Yes, these things keep every nerve alive
if we wish to be edge-screaming daredevils whipping around a city on a
canal with the flimsiest lilo for support. The tedium of taking care of
our bodies is intricately linked to living with honesty, to engage, to
figure out the mystery of being human.
Here’s to a borrowed epiphany from a man freshly shocked by the spectre
This: We may be fragile, a wafer-dry butterfly wing, we may be struck by
a heart attack, a clot, disease, accident, or simply old age, but our
ability to carry on, calamity after calamity, is miraculous. Human
elasticity is miraculous, unending. We should use this gift of tenacity
to live courageously, because time will, in the end, take it all away.
Finally this: We are each of us more loved than we know.
Happy New Year.