On “Life-Waste”

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 16, 2016

 E. Rittenhouse, president of the Provident Savings Life Assurance Society of New York, whose interesting pamphlet upon the American death rate was discussed in this column a few days ago, seems to be a firm believer in the popular theory that human existence, at least in the civilized countries, is growing more strenuous and more hazardous year by year.

The Bugaboo Of Neurasthenia

It is this theory which lies at the bottom of all the shallow pessimism of the time and fertilizes the soil for the New Thought movement, the barefoot craze, Fletcherism, vegetarianism and the rest of the healing and prophylactic cults now in favor. The prophets of these new and generally vague systems of medicine are unanimous in assuming, as a first principle, that the whole human race is sick. Some argue absurdly that its malady is purely mental, that it is suffering, at bottom, from nothing worse than a delusion of sickness, while others see only pasty faces and hollow chests in the passing throng and the symptoms of a host of horrible and incurable diseases. The majority however steer a middle course. That is to say they put their money upon neurasthenia, which is both a disease and a delusion, a disorder of the body and a derangement of the mind.

Neurasthenia is now in fashion. Every second patent medicine advertisement assures the reader that he has it, and in the sensational magazines it is walloped even more assiduously than plutocracy. It is, we are assured, the price of civilization, nature’s sign of revolt, the penalty we must all pay for living too fast. The shattered nerves and exhausted tissues of the race have begun to howl.

Mr. Rittenhouse, of course, does not go so far. As a man who has given serious study to the subject of national health he is well aware that neurasthenia is a comparatively rare disease and that the pictures of it drawn by medical yellow journalists, showing it as a pestilence which mows down its millions annually are entirely without justification in the facts. But all the same he seems to be impressed by the doctrine that the pace of modern life is nerve-wracking, for he puts “the stress of our rapid and complex existence” as the most important of all the causes of the increasing prevalence of cancer and lays down the theory that the disease might he abated 50 per cent by “the cultivation of life habits which tend to neutralize the strain.”

What Are The Facts?

But is it a fact after all, that the pace of modern life is nerve-wracking, that we are living too fast, that we burn the candle, as the prophets of disaster say, at both ends? An accurate and comprehensive answer, of course, is impossible, for the facts are too complex, and in many cases too obscure to be readily brought forth and examined, but meanwhile it is still possible to produce plenty of evidence in support of the negative position. At the very start there appears the evidence of common observation. Is it true, as we told, that the American people are nervous and exhausted, flabby and unhealthy? Obviously, it is the very reverse of true. The American people if anything are above the normal in their general healthiness, their unshakable sanity, their assertive wholesomeness—despite the fact that it is in America that the over-strenuousness of existence is supposed to be most apparent and the ravages of neurasthenia most terrible.

Mr. Rittenhouse’s own statistics are against him. He shows, for example, that, despite, all the alleged “strain” and “stress” of life today, the death rate in the United States has fallen, since 1880, from 1.86 per centum per annum to 1.5, and at once he proceeds to assume that the whole of this decline should be credited to advances in preventative and remedial medicine. As a matter of fact, it must be plain, on brief reflection, that a part of it must be credited to two other things, the one being the great growth of the fad for health-giving outdoor recreation and the other being the enormous improvement that has been made in what may be called the machinery of civilization.

The fundamental purpose of practically every human invention, and certainly of every one commonly designated useful, is that of making human existence less exhausting and more pleasant. In this purpose the telephone and the quinine pill are brothers. So are the elevator, the gum-shoe and laparotomy. So are the trolley car, the nickel-in-the-slot machine, diphtheria antitoxin and the reversible cuff. The essential aim of each of these things and of all other similar things is to reduce, to some extent, the wear and tear of life, to increase its joys without working a corresponding increase in its burdens, to augment the net return of human effort in ease, leisure and pleasure.

Devices To Save Labor

During the last 30 years the number of such devices for ameliorating the pains and discomforts of life has been vastly multiplied, and in consequence the business of living had become vastly less exhausting than it used to be. At first glance, of course, many such inventions seem to increase rather than decrease the burden of living, by reason of the fact that they palpably widen the opportunities for human effort and so tempt man to crowd more separate acts into a given time, but it must be plain that, in the long run, these multiplied acts tend to tax him less than he was taxed by the fewer acts they displace, and that the final result is a reduction in the amount of energy necessary to get through a day. The business man of the present, for example, is an incessant patron of elevators, and his constant rushing up and down, at high speed, seems to indicate an exhausting activity, but it is nevertheless a fact that his 20 trips a day to and from his twelfth-story office make demands on his energy that are a great deal less exhausting than the demands made by two round trips upon his father, whose office was not higher than the third floor, but who had to boot it up an exhausting stairway.

But isn’t it true that the maladies of middle life are increasing? Maybe they are, but maybe the cause is to be sought, not so much in an exhaustion following over-activity, as is a staleness consequent upon too much ease.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.