Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Right Angle Club: 2016
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How to Live a Long Life and Get Rich

A long time ago, a rich oriental man flew five thousand miles to ask me a question, "What is the secret of long life?" I was so startled by the experience I never did ask him why in the world he would think I knew the answer to such a question. But after a few seconds, I blurted out an answer. "The secret of long life," sez I, " is never get sick." I don't know what his opinion of my profundity was. But I do know what he died of. He was executed by his government, so I hadn't given him the right answer to his question.

At other times, people especially my children, asked me how to get rich. After some practice, I developed a pat answer to that one, too. "The secret of getting rich is to spend less than you earn." What I realized too late to be useful, was that, "Don't get sick and don't spend more than you earn", is a peculiarly American viewpoint, a Philadelphia attitude, and ultimately a Quaker one. It probably explains why there have been so few Pennsylvania Presidents of the United States, few Nobel prize winners, and relatively few Philadelphia glitterati in general.

Because, "Avoid risky behavior" comes closer to the right answer, since risky behavior is a fairly good pathway to glitterati success, and the Quakers had figured out it was a fairly good trade-off, to prefer longevity with prosperity. When I worked at the National Institutes of Health, I was struck by how many eminent scientists went through red lights, and otherwise exhibited risky driving behavior. Everybody knows eminent politicians play around with risky sexual behavior, as do movie stars and glitterati in general. But it is less noticed that America has an even larger proportion of risk avoiders who use that method to live long and prosperously. America has developed an environment where it is possible to get old and prosperous without so much tiresome risk-taking. Kingley's famous text of, "Be good, sweet child, and let who will be clever", doesn't quite get to the root of it. It's risk you want to minimize, not cleverness.

And the verb is minimize, not eliminate. The Quaker term is "steely meekness". And a bothersome American response comes from Winston Churchill, "If the enemy comes, be sure to take one with you."

 

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