The Length of One’s Life

This weekend I had a conversation with a friend who suggested I read an article titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75” that appeared in The Atlantic. It was written by a 57 year old man named Ezekiel Emanuel. Within 24 hours of that recommendation, the article appeared on my Twitter feed as well – so I figured I better go ahead and read the article after all.

So what is the gist of the article?

I will preface my summary by saying at the outset it will be overly generalized and perhaps even slanted given my perspective on the issues addressed.

The long and short of the article as I experience it is that he thinks that by the time an individual reaches 75, the individual’s best days are behind him or her. Therefore he plans to let go and be willing to die gracefully without taking measures to extend his life.

While we have worked feverishly to extend the number of years a person lives, the author notes, we have not REALLY succeeded at extending the amount of life an individual LIVES; we have succeeded primarily at extending the length of the dying process.

Here are the ramifications of the author’s beliefs within the context of his own life. At the age of 65, for instance, he notes he will stop getting colonoscopies; he won’t participate in screenings for prostate exams; he’ll refuse treatment for cancer that is diagnosed in his 70s; and he’ll quit getting flu shots.

So how do I feel about the author’s perspective?

In the first hours after reading the article, I went through a couple of stages.

The first stage involved a relatively quick dismissal of his idea. It seemed to have been developed by a person of privilege who was obsessed with at what he stood to lose from life as a result of the aging process. He was obviously well educated, for instance, so the thought of losing his mental acuity seemed unbearable. He was clearly in good physical condition as well (he had just hiked Mount Kilimanjaro with his nephews this summer) – so the thought of losing his vigor seemed overwhelming as well.

Using his line of reasoning, I wonder how he would feel about those with mental or physical challenges of any age. Would he think their lives are worth living?

The author’s perspective on what makes life worth living seems rather limited to me.

This took me to the second stage. The second stage involved a little bit of raging against our society that has taught the author (and the rest of us) that life is best lived when we are young, beautiful, physically and mentally healthy, and at our peak earning potential.

The consequence of this message is devastating to so many. People who aren’t attractive or physically fit, for instance, are often dismissed by some in our society. Such folks have to endure moral judgments that get attached to one’s appearance (i.e. attractive people are assumed by many to be more intelligent and hard-working than unattractive people). This causes those not deemed attractive to wrestle with life-long self-esteem issues that diminish their quality of life.

Similar things are at play regarding the rampant ageism in our society. People in our society often have their worth defined by their job title or salary. When those go away, so too does their sense of worth. Many seniors give up on life after retirement – assuming there’s nothing left to live for.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the author lived in a society that had a healthier perspective about various social locations if he would feel the same way.

Then I moved into stage three. In stage three, I felt as if 75 is such an arbitrary marker to adopt. “If one were to give up on maintain life at 75,” I wondered, “why not at 74 – or 71 – or 68 – or 57?”

He went on to explain the reason why he suggested 75. By the age of 75 a person has pretty much seen the life cycle through. You’ve gotten your education; you’ve had a career; you’ve raised a family; you’ve had grandchildren; you’ve retired and had a few good years. By the time you’ve reached 75, it would suggest, all the major things have all been crossed off one’s “to do” list.

Here’s where I see things differently.

I have met so many people in my life and ministry who have had incredibly active and vital years well beyond the age of 75. Some have met their first love in their late 70s; some have created amazing contributions to the arts in their 80s; some have deeper joy and contentment than they have ever known. I resist the notion that a person’s best years are automatically behind them just because they are 75 and have lived through a series of major life events.

The real issue that the author seems to be wrestling with is the question, “What makes life worth living?” That is a tremendously important question – and a question too few of us have addressed.

The medical community has answered that question. They have interpreted the Hippocratic Oath to mean they will use their all of their resources to keep a body alive no matter what the circumstance (for the most part).

I don’t think their answer is adequate for many – especially those of us who have lived through a situation where we’ve seen a loved one’s body kept artificially alive through tubes without any quality whatsoever.

I do give the author of the article (Ezekiel Emanuel) a great deal of credit for having the courage to raise this sensitive question. I am not entirely satisfied with his answer, though, either.

After reading his article, I am still looking for an answer to the question that factors in – and CELEBRATES- the fullness of the life cycle. While Emanuel correctly notes that as we age some abilities and insights are lost, I think he underestimates things that we gain with age as well. I would love to see him write a follow up to the article when he is 69!

Instead of making a summary of statement where I land on all of this, I would love to hear what you think? What is the measure of life? How long should it be lived?

I look forward to hearing from you…

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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2 Responses to The Length of One’s Life

  1. Stevie says:

    Well….in a week I will be 68. This post gave me tremendous food for thought. Here’s what I know for sure…..we all, including Mr. Emanuel, have different perspectives at 57 than we do at 68. My guess is that his will change when 75 is only 7 years away. This past summer I met with 12 women from college. Most of us had reconnected through Facebook, and had not seen nor heard from each other in nearly 50 years. Our journeys were greatly varied, but we all had one thing in common….We are loving our lives in the moment and have resounding excitement for our futures. It’s like anything else….every life and every path is different, and there’s no right or wrong way to live or right or wrong time to die. If Mr. Emanuel is as healthy and fit as it seems, I want to read the article he will write in 10 years or so.

  2. Sharon says:

    When my brother was 15 he didn’t expect to live to 25. That was ok with him, after all at 15, 25 is OLD. Well, now he is 69 he certainly doesn’t think 25 is old anymore 🙂 Our days are numbered anyway, we should just make the most of each one.

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