December 10, 2002 | home

Issue of 2002-12-09
Posted 2002-12-02

According to a study just released by scientists at Duke University, life is too hard. Although their findings mainly concern life as experienced by human beings, the study also applies to other animate forms, the scientists claim. Years of tests, experiments, and complex computer simulations now provide solid statistical evidence in support of old folk sayings that described life as "a vale of sorrows," "a woeful trial," "a kick in the teeth," "not worth living," and so on. Like much common wisdom, these sayings turn out to contain more than a little truth.

Authors of the twelve-hundred-page study were hesitant to single out any particular factors responsible for making life tough. A surprise, they say, is that they found so many. Before the study was undertaken, researchers had assumed, by positive logic, that life could not be that bad. As the data accumulated, however, they provided incontrovertible proof that life is actually worse than most living things can stand. Human endurance equals just a tiny fraction of what it should be, given everything it must put up with. In a personal note in the afterword, researchers stated that, statistically speaking, life is "just too much," and as yet they have no plausible theory how anyone gets through it at all.

A major disadvantage to living which the study called attention to is, of course, death. In fact, so obvious are its drawbacks that no one before had thought to examine or measure them empirically. Death's effects on life, the scientists pointed out, are two: First, death intrudes constantly and unpleasantly by putting life at risk at every stage, from infancy through advanced adulthood, degrading its quality and compromising happiness. For individuals of every species, death represents a chronic, worrisome threat that they can never completely ignore.

Secondly, and far worse, death also constitutes an overwhelmingly no-win experience in itself. Many of life's well-known stress producers—divorce, loss of employment, moving, even fighting traffic—still hold out hope of a better outcome in the future. After all, one may end up with a better spouse, exciting new job, beautiful home, or fresh bottle from the drive-through liquor store. Death, by contrast, involves as much trouble as any conventional stress, if not more. Yet, at the end of the medical humiliations, physical suffering, money concerns, fear, and tedium of dying, one has no outcome to look forward to except being dead. This alone, the study found, is enough to give the entire life process a negative tinge.

Besides dying, life is burdened with countless occurrences that are almost equally unacceptable to active and vital individuals. In many cases which the scientists observed, humans no longer functioned properly after the age of seventy or seventy-five. A large majority of subjects in that age range exhibited significant loss of foot speed, upper-body strength, reflexes, hair, and altitude of vertical leap. Accompanying these impairments were other health glitches, sometimes in baffling number and variety. Such acquired traits carried the additional downside of making their possessors either "undesirable" or "very undesirable" to members of the opposite sex in the key eighteen-to-thirty-fivedemographic. Researchers were able to offer no credible hope for the development of treatments to deal with these creeping inadequacies.

Somewhat simplifying the study's collection of data was the natural law first discovered by Newton that things are rough all over. Thus, what happens to you will always be just as bad (relatively speaking) as what happens to anybody else. Or, to frame it another way, no problem is effectively "minor" if you yourself have it. One example is the mattress cover, or quilted pad, that goes over the mattress before you put on the fitted sheet, and that pops loose from one corner of the mattress in the middle of the night nearly sixty per cent of the time, experts say. After it does, it will often work its way diagonally down the bed, taking the fitted sheet with it, until it becomes a bunched-together ridge of cloth poking up at about kidney level. The problem it represents to the individual experiencing it at that moment is absolute, in the sense that it cannot usefully be compared with difficulties in the lives of people in China or anywhere. The poke in the kidneys and the press of bare mattress against the face are simply the accumulating misery of life making itself known.

Nine out of ten of the respondents, identified by just their first initials for the purpose of the survey, stated that they would give up completely if they knew how. The remainder also didn't see the point of going on any longer but still clung to a slight hope for something in the mail. Quitting the struggle and lying face down on the floor was a coping strategy favored by most or all. Situations like having to wait an entire day for a deliveryman to deliver a breakfront and the guy didn't say exactly when he would be there and in the end didn't come and didn't even bother to call were so pointless and awful that the hell with the whole deal, many respondents said.

Interestingly, the numbers bear them out. The point, or points, of going on with existence, when charted and quantified, paint a very grim picture indeed. Merely trying to get a shoe off a child has been shown to release a certain chemical into the system which causes a reaction exactly opposite to what the task requires. Despite vigorous effort and shouting, the thing won't come off, for Christ's sake, as can be seen in the formula written out in full in Figure 7. Furthermore, that level of suffering doesn't include the additional fact that a person's spouse may not consider what the person does every day to be "work," because he or she happens occasionally to enjoy it; so what is he or she supposed to do, get a job he or she hates, instead? From a mathematical standpoint, this particular problem is an infinite regression.

Flammia Brothers Pharmaceuticals, which paid somebody to say it paid for the study, frankly admits that it does not as yet have the answers. In the interim, it offers a wide array of experience-blocking drugs, which consist of copyrighted names without pills to go with them, and which certainly might work, depending on one's susceptibility, financial history, and similar factors. Hundreds of thousands of notepads with the Flammia Brothers' logo and colorful drug names at the top of every page are already in circulation in doctors' offices and examining rooms, and a soothing poultice may be made of these pages soaked in water and driveway salt from Ace Hardware. (Most health-insurance plans may or may not cover the cost of the salt, excluding delivery.)

Other large drug manufacturers, while not willing to go quite as far, still substantially follow the Flammia Brothers' program. The fact that life is beyond us has been firmly established by now. All the information is in, and no real dispute remains. But with the temporary absence of lasting remedies, and looking to a future when they won't be necessary, the manufacturers' consortium suggests that consumers send them money in cash or check, no questions asked. Major health organizations have unanimously endorsed this goal. Originally, the consortium explained that the companies might need the money to develop a new generation of drugs narrowly focussed on curing many previously uncured problems. More recently, however, they have backed off of that.

Why we were brought into the world in the first place only to suffer and die is an area of research in which much remains to be done. Like other problems thought impossible in the past, this one, too, will someday be solved. Then anybody afflicted with questions like "Why me?,'' "What did I do to deserve this?," "How did I get in this lousy mess?," and so on could be given a prescription, maybe even through diagnostic services provided online. The possibilities are exciting. At the same time, we must not underestimate our adversary, life itself. Uncomfortable even at good moments, difficult and unfair usually, and a complete nightmare much too often, life will stubbornly resist betterment, always finding new ways of being more than we can stand.