I recently found myself gazing at some plaques commemorating the dead from the First World War. There were four plaques side by side, in white marble with incised black lettering, and gold edging. I glanced idly at the names, nearly all from families still familiar in the town.
Then I was struck by something that was at first beyond comprehension - only two-thirds of the first plaque held the names of those killed in action. The remainder of that plaque, and the whole of the other three, held the names of those who had died of disease while on active service. Five times as many had died from illness as had died from wounds.
There is a thesis that our present way of life is somehow unhealthy. We are damaging our environment, destroying the very basis of life, if the doomsayers are to be believed. Yet less than a century ago, people were dying from diseases that today we regard as perfectly curable. Those able to afford the privileges of clean air, clean water, clean food and prompt medical services that our cities provide, can confidently expect to live more than the biblical three-score-and-ten. They are not exposed to the microbes that caused such havoc only a few generations ago.
That is not to say that life is not tenuous. By any measure, we ultimately depend on six inches of topsoil and a few inches of rain. But we have managed to improve the topsoil, and find ways of bringing water where rain is low. The quantity of food available to us is growing faster than the population, and the rate of growth of population is slowing. So more and more people are able to look forward to a full lifespan.
This should be cause for great happiness. Yet many agree (and in this case I am one of the many) that there is a remarkable level of unhappiness in our world. People are discontented, and seem unfulfilled, even when their lives are apparently filled with a richness that their grandparents could only dream about.
What do people feel is missing from their lives? I wish I knew the answer to this conundrum. Some complain of boredom, the sameness of each new day - yet they regularly go off on holidays that must surely break the very monotony of which they complain. Some express deep envy, that they are not as rich as their neighbours, or perceive themselves to be at a disadvantage, in spite of the fact that their lives are visibly improving daily. Some have wealth beyond my wildest dreams, yet have totally dysfunctional families that no riches can assuage.
I am being driven to concur with Abraham Lincoln - "People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be."