Thursday, April 14, 2016


A protein designed to ticket germs and junk for destruction had been co-opted by the nervous system to ticket synapses for destruction. “It reinforces an old intuition,” my psychiatrist friend Hans told me. “The secret of learning is the systematic elimination of excess. We grow, mostly by dying.” Siddhartha Mukherjee (“Runs in the Family,” The New Yorker, March 28, 2016)
We thrive on destruction. Right down to our most basic physiology, at a molecular level: we sacrifice in order to thrive. Every day our damaged cells are flushed out, our synapses are pruned, and no one weeps while the ruthless human organism strengthens and refines itself at the expense of its outgrown parts. No, it’s not ruthless—immorality is too sentimental a notion to be applied to these insentient bits—discreet, obedient, innumerable—that comprise the human body—the self—and behave, in concert, like an automaton. 

          Likewise when growth goes unchecked in this microscopic arena, cancers develop and the wellbeing of our organism as a whole is threatened by the chaotic proliferation of cells. Unimpeded growth ultimately overtakes and becomes the destroyer. We are most comfortable discussing cancer as an enemy invader. To envision that chaos always threatens from within is harder. But it's just as inappropriate to attribute ruthlessness to a malignancy as to our daily survival. Nothing personal about it, just doing a job. (Or is that the definition of ruthless?)

          Tonight we're all alone: We all lie down. We close our eyes. And we wage war for eight hours, fighting to the death. And, if we’re lucky, we awaken refreshed and remember nothing.

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