Once upon a time we used to share secrets. Now we share medical histories. Some of us have reached a stage in life when illness tends to pay more frequent visits. We are familiar with names of medical conditions whose existence we were completely unaware of when we were safe in the cocoon of blissful ignorance.
One e-mail informs me of a friend's trepidation at having to undergo a stress test as recommended by her physician. And she is not referring to the stress associated with the presence of recalcitrant children and obstreperous spouse.
Not having experienced this yet, I try my best to be sympathetic and not alarmist, using words like 'relax' and 'I'm sure there's nothing wrong'. Nevertheless I feel a sense of dread at the thought that these very same words might come back to haunt me. These might be the words proffered to me in a vain attempt to calm my fears.
D-day comes and goes and I am informed that the test went off without a hitch. My friend informs me that the technician told her it was OK. What exactly this means is not made clear.
She is too scared to insist on anything being spelt out. So, her doubts and suspicions remain until she is able to get an appointment with her doctor, a task as daunting as trying to get a one-on-one interview with a reclusive movie star.
A brother-in-law can be found every morning poring over the newspaper. Is it the stock market? The situation in the Middle East? None of these things. What he is perusing is the obituaries column, looking for names he recognises and deciding which families need to be paid a condolence visit or whose soul he can offer prayers for.
When we were younger the most we suffered were childhood ailments like chicken pox or measles which made us fret and fume at having to miss out on play time and being confined to a room.
Colds and sore throats were inconveniences we shrugged off although we did cash in on such situations, always alive to the possibility of sympathy and being excused from detested chores.
The satisfaction of seeing a sibling taking over one's duties temporarily almost made the illness worthwhile. Of course, one had to contend with the murderous glances shot one's way. But we learnt to bear these even as we lapped up all the attention and fuss. We were well aware of how short-lived this would be.
This preoccupation with our health is sometimes in danger of becoming an obsession. So much so that some are mortally wounded if someone else discloses that they too suffer from something similar. The immediate thought is that no one else can have it as bad as you do. So, you will list the intensity of your symptoms, unwilling to allow an impostor to steal your thunder.
As each of these is countered with a description of suffering worse than yours, you will speak of your high threshold for pain and imply that you are not the kind of person who dwells on her illnesses but bear your pain with the fortitude of a saint.
This preoccupation with mortality comes with the onset of age as one realises that one's time on earth is limited and that there are no guarantees. So, should one worry less and enjoy oneself more? That would seem logical. But we continue to worry ourselves sick about all the calamities that could befall us, forgetting to savour the present moment.
'Don't worry, be happy' might seem trite but it is sage advice. An unhealthy preoccupation with one's state of health can be a source of great unhappiness even as one alienates friends and sympathisers.