San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Power Of Belief

As you know, people can be roughly assigned to one of two categories: believers and unbelievers. Believers will believe virtually anything you tell them, providing you do it in a sufficiently authoritative tone, while unbelievers won’t credit anything you say unless you prove it six ways from Thursday right there in front of them. 

Of course, it’s not absolutely black and white; you can be an unbeliever six days a week and a semi-believer on the seventh, particularly in matters concerning religion, politics or football, where total devotion is required. But generally after five minutes’ conversation you can tell where anyone is coming from.

On balance, I would say it’s more fun to be an unbeliever: Think of the thrill you get every morning when the sun rises, because until then you had serious doubts that it would, while the believer doesn’t even bother to look.

All of which brings me to my friend Malcomb, who was definitely an unbeliever. Except that one Sunday, Malcomb was browsing through the New England Journal of Medicine and came across an article about telomeres. These are chains of loosely connected cells forming the tail of every chromosome in your body. Each time a chromosome reproduces itself, it loses one telomere, so that eventually, after some 80 to 100 years, depending on diet, you run out of telomeres.

The article asserted that, with no telomeres left, every cell in your body would soldier on until the end of its normal life, but would no longer reproduce itself, so that you would effectively fall apart and have to hand in your chips. It went on to point out that by counting your telomeres, you could get a rough idea of your remaining life expectancy, assuming you were not carried off by accident or infection before then.

Malcomb’s first reaction was to scoff at such nonsense, but after checking out references on the Web, he found there was indeed a convincing correlation between telomere disappearance and death. He became an ardent advocate of the theory, even going so far as to submit a blood sample for testing.

It was pretty expensive – about $10,000 – but the results were evidently encouraging, as Malcomb promptly embarked on a new lifestyle of self-indulgence, confident he had at least a decade left before he had to make out a will.

I myself had some misgivings, as I had actually experienced the power of conviction in the dark forests of the Congo, where you are brought up to believe exactly what you’re told by the elders. There, to get ahead, you only have to leave two crossed sticks outside your rival’s hut and he dies within a fortnight, having willed himself to death.

And so it was with Malcomb. When his annual telomere count dropped to zero, he gave up eating and drinking, and we buried him a month later. Which is why I say it’s better to be an unbeliever, providing you stick to it every day of the week.

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