Friday, April 17, 2009

The Plight of the Lowly Sperm


Stress gets all of us down. No matter who you are, sometimes the little things pile up, or the big things catch you off guard. Projects, commitments, exams, essays, lay-offs, relationships starting, relationships ending, death, disaster - they can all have a pretty atrocious effect on your system as you wonder to yourself “how will I ever get through this.”

Some perspective helps. Like a circus sideshow, it's always nice to look at someone else and say "wow, at least I'm better-off than him." This has, I am fairly sure, been the reason for reality television's success over the past ten years. Nothing makes you feel better about yourself than seeing the truly inept have their problems highlighted  on a national, often international, stage.

But if Big Brother's on  hiatus and America's Next Top Model doesn't come on 'till Friday, there's a simpler way to gain perspective. You don’t have to look far to find it – only an eyeflick downwards, at the nearest man’s groin. 

Inside that groin – it may be yours – is a major unsung hero of our time. The lowly sperm. Whatever hand life has dealt you, I can personally guarantee that it would beat his.

For one, look at where he is born, and may die – inside someone’s testicles. Maybe it’s a matter of personal taste, but this, to me, is not the ideal living space. It’s hot, it’s damp,  and it smells. And it's not like it's a nice neighbourhood either - to one side is a penis;to the other, an anus. To be honest, I’d rather live almost anywhere else.

But there is a certain enviable simplicity in the sperm's life, living arrangements notwithstanding. The  great questions of humanity, echoed through every culture’s art, religion, and philosophy are pretty tough: “why are we here?” "where are we going?" Sperm are not known for their artwork. Possibly this is because they have no arms or legs to paint or write with, or possibly because they do not have brains capable of such complex thought. The cynic would say so, but I’m a romantic: I think it’s because the sperm doesn’t need to ask these questions. His lot in life is clear, his fate sealed from the day he’s born. 

Wait in your testicle home until you’re summoned. When you are, grab a chunk of DNA and get expelled – along with hundreds of millions of your compatriots, so you won’t be lonely – and rocket down a tube at unfathomable speeds before landing, a tad breathless, in a strange cavern. Once there, it’s every man for himself – swim as fast as you can in the race of a lifetime. If you win, you get to become a person. If you lose, you die. Talk about high stakes. Indeed, it's probably more heartbreaking to fall short of his goal than it is for any of us to fall short of ours; after all, if we fail, we can always try something else. Not only does the sperm not get a chance to set a new goal for himself, he wouldn't know what to do if he did. He's programmed to do one thing, and one thing only. 

But do they ever complain? No. Do they ever refuse to take part in this event that will likely lead to their death? No. Every chance they get, they swim their hearts out, trying their best to fulfill the one goal they’ve ever had. If they don’t make it? Well, ce’st  la vie. At least they tried.

It never was the ideal life, but from the 20th century onwards it got a lot worse. Regardless of their contribution to public health, the condom, the contraceptive pill, the IUD and the sponge have not been good for the business of fertilization. Imagine the disappointment of rounding that final bend, only to find the expected death-star sized egg not present. All that effort, for naught. 

This isn’t quite as bad as the other options, though; after all,  he must have known that the egg’s presence wasn’t guaranteed – it was just another long shot set of odds in his long shot life.

But the sponge – he smashes into it, and finds himself soaked into a material with which he is completely unfamiliar. The IUD – everything is going fine, he’s swimming along, then zap – some copper poisons him and he quickly expires.

Most painful and humiliating, though, must be the prophylactic. It is different than the others in that halts the fantasy of a chance the earliest.“This is what I train for,” the sperm thinks to himself as he grabs his packet of DNA and sits in his ejection seat “I’m going to do my host proud and spread his genes like they’ve never been spread.” He sits back, a bit nervous and very excited; or is that very nervous and a bit excited. It's such an emotional rollercoaster that he can’t tell which one takes precedence. The adrenaline is coursing from his head to the tip  of his tail – he’s never been more ready in his life. He takes a deep breath, and BLAM he's off like a shot.

Smash.  With a sickening thud, he hits the impermeable latex of the condom. Maybe he’s killed instantly; maybe he blacks out, then wakes up, looking around to see if anyone else made it through. Nobody did. His comrades, the men he grew up with, who he became so close with during their retrospectively short tenure inside your testicles, are writhing in pain around him. They’ve smashed into the latex, into each other; those who miraculously escaped death are trying to push their way to the front, creating a stampede that kills even more. The sperm takes stock of what is happening, and, just before he dies, realizes that he will never – and nor will anyone he knows – carry out the one task he was assigned in this world. 

If he had cheeks or eyes, a single tear would drift down the former before the blackness overtakes him. But he doesn't even have the luxury of crying.

So think of him next time the world’s getting you down. Think of the sperm and his friends, laying there in agony in a condom, or even making it all the way to the egg, but a split second too late and being poisoned for their trouble. What's  more, I haven't even mentioned the patently genocidal amount that end their lives on a tissue, old pair of underwear, or in a sock. We all feel, from time to time, that we were born under a bad sign, but when compared to the sperm, we’ve got the world in the palm of our hands. 

With the exception of the one in a billion who make it. They, I fear, put all of us and our piddly goals to shame. So if you're looking for perspective, try not to think about them.

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