Twelve Strokes of the Clock
The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous.
But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends...and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.
A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. ...With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to the contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.
E. A. Poe, The Masque of the Red Death, 1842
Those of you who are familiar with Poe's magnificent gothic tale know how the Prince's elaborate masque ends as the "gigantic clock of ebony" in the last apartment strikes midnight. The ghastly fate the revelers meet is appalling, yet after the initial frisson of the massacre, some readers might conclude that the selfish Prince and his frivolous friends got what they deserved for trying to cheat the Grim Reaper. They found out the hard way that one cannot wall out death; it is a part of all living things, and cannot be escaped.
Given the gruesome nature of the Red Death, however, who can blame them for trying? Who among us would refuse the invitation to leave the foul, decaying countryside for the safety of the barricaded abbey?
Modern consumers of health care in some ways are like the arabesque figures imprisoned within Poe's story. They learn about good health from the moment they can read and then are bombarded with helpful information about how to prevent one affliction or another. By the time they reach adulthood many of their actions are influenced by their impact on health. They feel guilty if they do not take every precaution to keep themselves safe from the plagues that punish in this age, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
We all therefore devote much of our time trying to wall out illness. We toil at building a fortress to deny the invader who in the tale "dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel". The stones we cut to construct our walls are plentiful and easy to quarry: exercise, healthy diet, screening tests, abstention from tobacco, moderation in alcohol use, medications and supplements. With reasonable alterations in lifestyle choices we can someday stand in the tower of a massive citadel, protected from the "Darkness and Decay" of the epidemics around us.
This is an admirable goal. I follow it faithfully, as do millions of conscientious men and women around the world. Our commitment to preventing illness will allows the gala called our healthy life to continue. We shall dance on - or as Poe would describe it:
And now again the music swells, and the dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever...
I commend all those who have made the often difficult choice to embrace the habits that strengthen our bodies and eschew those that expose it to the dismaying and monstrous withering of preventable disease. May those who struggle to build this wall find the insight and courage to persevere.
Lest we forget though, remember that good health can be defined as dying at the slowest possible rate. The wisest person in the world is the one who enjoys the delights of the soiree while keeping an eye on the clock, for whether one is blessed with good health or poor, when "the last echoes of the last chime" sound, the masked spectre will "come like a thief in the night". Even the strongest walls cannot deny his entry. Let us stand tall before him at the hour of his arrival, and as he takes our hand, smile and look backward upon our life with pride.