Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World
Why I Love the Circus
I love the circus. I love to watch a juggler throwing screaming chain saws in the air, or a tightrope walker performing ten flips in a row. I love the spectacle and the sense of amazement and delight at witnessing the seemingly impossible.
When I was a child my dream was to become a circus artist. My parents’ dream, though, was for me to get the good education they never had. So I ended up studying medicine.
One afternoon at medical school, in an otherwise dry lecture about the way the throat worked, our professor explained, “If something is stuck, the passage can be straightened by pushing the chin bone forward.” To illustrate, he showed an X-ray of a sword swallower in action.
I had a flash of inspiration. My dream was not over! A few weeks earlier, when studying reflexes, I had discovered that of all my classmates, I could push my fingers farthest down my throat without gagging. At the time, I had not been too proud: I didn’t think it was an important skill. But now I understood its value, and instantly my childhood dream sprang back to life. I decided to become a sword swallower.
My initial attempts weren’t encouraging. I didn’t own a sword so used a fishing rod instead, but no matter how many times I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and tried, I’d get as far as an inch and it would get stuck. Eventually, for a second time, I gave up on my dream.
Three years later I was a trainee doctor on a real medical ward. One of my first patients was an old man with a persistent cough. I would always ask what my patients did for a living, in case it was relevant, and it turned out he used to swallow swords. Imagine my surprise when this patient turned out to be the very same sword swallower from the X-ray! And imagine this, when I told him all about my attempts with the fishing rod. “Young doctor,” he said, “don’t you know the throat is flat? You can only slide flat things down there. That is why we use a sword.”
That night after work I found a soup ladle with a straight flat handle and immediately resumed my practice. Soon I could slide the handle all the way down my throat. I was excited, but being a soup ladle shaft swallower was not my dream. The next day, I put an ad in the local paper and soon I had acquired what I needed: a Swedish army bayonet from 1809. As I successfully slid it down my throat, I felt both deeply proud of my achievement and smug that I had found such a great way to recycle weapons.
Sword swallowing has always shown that the seemingly impossible can be possible, and inspired humans to think beyond the obvious. Occasionally I demonstrate this ancient Indian art at the end of one of my lectures on global development. I step up onto a table and rip off my professorial checked shirt to reveal a black vest top decorated with a gold sequined lightning bolt. I call for complete silence, and to the swirling beat of a snare drum I slowly slide the army bayonet down my throat. I stretch out my arms. The audience goes wild.
|June 5, 2018
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