Lucky people should be happy

Call no man happy until he is dead, said Aeschylus, who is now dead. I'm not. Yet I'm happy.

Last Friday a middle-aged man went where no-one has been before. He took a camera with him and I'm looking at the snaps that he brought back. They are perhaps of more interest to me than to most people. They show the inside of my knee. I had never expected to see it.

That thing there, like the rising moon, is the white expanse of my kneecap. The fleshy beast attached to it is my anterior cruciate ligament, which is apparently looking just as an anterior cruciate ligament should, despite 55 years of use. I feel unjustifiably smug about that. The next frame, however, is less smug-making. It shows a torn medial meniscus, its edge all flappy and sore.

But look down the page and there's the meniscus once again, only now the ragged edge has been snipped away. The thing now looks like a well-trimmed toenail. That's the surgeon's doing.

Having never had surgery, I didn't know what to expect. Would it hurt? Would I vomit? Would I recover?

The hospital receptionists laughed at my nervous jokes. The nurses smiled and answered my questions without condescension. The surgeon dropped in for a pre- match chat. The anaesthetist could have charmed for New Zealand.

They painted my leg purple to make sure they got the right one. They laid me on a warmed blanket and wheeled me gently down corridors of cushioned linoleum and into a theatre crammed with technology. Three seconds later, I was waking up beside a plate of sandwiches without crusts. I didn't feel sick and I wasn't in pain. I ate the sandwiches. They were excellent.

That was Friday afternoon. I am writing this on Sunday afternoon. Forty-eight hours after undergoing knee surgery I have just got back from walking the dog a mile or more. The dog carried a stick for some of that mile, but I didn't. It is tempting to call the whole business a miracle.

Except that miracles don't happen. Water's never been turned into wine, no-one's ever risen from the dead and the only people to profit from faith healing have been faith healers. Nor is a partial meniscectomy a miracle. But it's certainly a wonder.

Our species is young. Homo sapiens arrived at its current anatomical form only a couple of hundred thousand years ago. On the cosmic clock that is barely a tick. The turtle's been going at least 500 times as long, and the coelacanth four times as long again. We are evolutionary babies.

Two hundred thousand years is only about 10,000 generations, and for 9998 of those generations, if you tore a medial meniscus, that was that. You limped for the rest of your life.

That we in 21st-century New Zealand don't have to take our torn menisci to the grave should make us grateful. We are among the most fortunate people in history, so fortunate that we have learnt to expect comfort, to expect freedom from pain, to expect medical treatment that does us good, and to expect to live a long time. Our ancestors expected none of these things. They only hoped for them. Hopelessly, most of the time.

That we can expect them is the result of centuries of work by the dead. Anatomists, chemists, physicists and so on, absorbed what had gone before, added their bit and handed it on to the next generation like an Olympic torch. They acquired knowledge through observation and experiment and they passed it on with language. At the end of the chain stand the medical people who have just done me such good. I can take no credit. I can only gawp at my luck.

Luck means chance. An old word for chance is hap. The original meaning can still be seen in happen, or mishap. Happy, therefore, means merely lucky. So we who are lucky ought to be, by definition, happy. We should be smiling.

They say that happiness writes white, which is why newspapers are full of unhappy things. There is no news in good news. But I just want to say thanks, both to the living who fixed my knee and, although it will do them a fat lot of good, to the dead. Thanks. Next week, back to whingeing.

The Press