Society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. -Greek proverb
I’ve loved these words since the first time I’ve heard them several years ago as a way to introduce a podcast on philosophy. While I’m not yet an old man (though my nephew may beg to differ) I often try and think of what lasting legacy I can leave behind. As an atheist I do not believe in an afterlife, so if this life is the only one I’ve got, I want to make it count. We may live on in the memories of friends and family for a generation or maybe two after we’re gone, but after the vast majority of us will be forgotten, or, I suppose in this day and age, may live on digitally as an entry on Ancestry.com with a few Instagram photos. That’s fine by me, but it doesn’t mean that while I’m here I can’t plant a few trees, literally and metaphorically.
The other day I ended up in a Wiki-wormhole reading up on a congenital heart defect I have, Tetralogy of Fallot. You can read more about it here, but the long and short of it is that I was born with four different defects of the heart. I’ve had three surgeries for it, two palliative and one repair. Generally speaking I do OK, in fact, unless you saw me at the pool with my shirt of where the scars would be visible, you might not guess anything was wrong. But the fact is even after the repair, my heart has difficulty moving oxygenated blood through my body compared to someone without the defect, and so the most outwardly visible symptom I exhibit may be shortness of breath, particularly during exercise or strenuous activity. My last surgery was over twenty years ago and, like repairing any piece of machinery, the heart can wear itself back out, replacement valves calcify, etc. I may need another repair surgery at some point down the road, but right now I’m still on the road, as it were.
So while I was down the Wiki-wormhole, clicking different links I stumbled upon a program through the National Institute of Health called the Pediatric Cardiac Genomic Consortium. The PCGC is comprised of groups of doctors and researchers trying to identify genetic causes of congenital heart disease and how genetic variants in patients effect treatment outcomes. From their website:
The PCGC will significantly increase understanding of the causes and modifiers of pediatric cardiovascular pathology, and over time will enhance early detection, treatment and prevention of congenital heart disease in newborns, children, and adults.
I’ve exchanged a few emails with PCGC staff, and they’re still recruiting people, like me, with congenital heart defects to participate in the study by providing medical histories, DNA samples, echocardiogram results, etc. If I can participate in the study, it will be one of those tree planting moments. It’s obviously too late for me when it comes to prevention, but the very idea that someday we can prevent this disease and I will have played a small role in assisting the doctors and researchers get us there is hugely satisfying.
People have asked me what, as an atheist, do I think the meaning of life is? For me the meaning of life is to do what you can to make the world a better place in the short time you’re given. This is one small part of that.