Last week I stumbled on a report that concluded no amount of alcohol is good for your health if you are under 40. If you are over 40, the report said, then a small amount might do you some good. (Thank God: only nine years to go, I thought. Oh God: nine years to go, I thought shortly after.)
The verdict on the study in question was clear: we should all seriously consider abstaining from alcohol. I quote the senior author of the study: “Our message is simple: young people should not drink.”
Now, as relieved as I was to find myself included, at the age of 31, in the category marked “young”, I found all this a bit vexing. In fact, I still find it vexing. What I quarrel with is the suggestion that because alcohol does not toughen up our hearts or scrape clean the walls of our arteries, as we used to think it did, it is not at all “good” for us. It is harmful to our bodies and so, the thinking runs, it is no good at all.
But it seems to me that this definition of “good” is far too narrow. The perspective taken is too isolated. To put it a slightly different way, I felt that the researchers had not taken the whole context of a person’s life into account. And context is everything.
Look at it this way: alcohol greases the wheels of social interaction, and that helps us to open up and rub along well together. Despite the individualist fantasies of some, this is the key to a happy (and healthy) life. The closer we feel to other people, the more fulfilled we tend to be. This is hardly surprising, because we are profoundly social creatures.
A glass of rouge (or whatever your poison happens to be) helps us to overcome our shyness, to be more honest with one another, to connect. It encourages us to lose ourselves in each other at festivals, at parties, at gigs, at sporting events and at God knows how many other kinds of gatherings. It ritualises births and marriages and funerals. It makes a celebration a celebration. (It is amazing how a little fizz can turn an otherwise unremarkable evening into an occasion.)
Yes, there are plenty of people who struggle with alcohol, and there are those who commit violence or engage in other kinds of crime while drunk. But there are uncountable others – the vast majority – who drink simply to wind down after a difficult day, or to summon up the courage to chat with new colleagues or other party guests or a date. There are those among us who derive sensual enjoyment from drink, as some do from food.
Alcohol has played an important role in the development of our culture, however imperfect you might perceive it to be. The Ancient Greek symposium, immortalised by Plato, was essentially a drinking party where liberal quantities of wine encouraged the free exchange of ideas. (Or at least, that was how they spun it.)
And then there is the muse-like quality of alcohol: it is no secret that some of our greatest writers did their finest work while drunk or, in some cases, outright smashed. (The secret is: edit sober.) Believe me, I could go on.
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Of course, the value of these things is difficult to quantify, but that does not for a moment mean they do not have value. It goes without saying that we need to bear in mind the way alcohol can make some of us do damage to ourselves and others, and naturally we need to keep learning about how to support those prone to dependency.
It is useful to have some awareness of our own tendencies and how we respond to any intoxicant, too: to know why we drink and how we drink, to take time away or abstain if our drinking is harming our quality of life. But is this not simply to live life with our eyes open?
I concede that it is good to look after our health. But I maintain that life is supposed to be lived well, not just for a long time. And who knows when the reaper will show up, grinning, beckoning us down a dark corridor with a long, bony finger? I am put in mind of the philosophical moth in a Don Marquis poem, shortly before he immolates himself on a cigar lighter in pursuit of beauty: “We are like human beings used to be before they became too civilised to enjoy themselves.”
Whatever the risk to our health that alcohol poses (and there is, obviously, a risk), I do not think for a second that it can be dismissed as something that does us no “good”. For many of us, life is made richer and more meaningful and more fun by booze. Just, you know, try not to go overboard.