I've come across two articles in the past few weeks related to the age at which we might accept death and embrace living entirely, without trying to skirt the issue or delay the inevitable - that is, the age at which we stop trying to prolong our lives and accept that we are ready to die naturally when that time comes.
I first considered the idea after hearing a reference to the issue in the book The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of our Bodies and Brains (Robert H. Lustig). I'll report on that book more in-depth in the coming weeks; I finished listening to it on Audible a few weeks ago. But, toward the end of the book Lustig references an article written by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist who heads the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania by way of Harvard, Oxford, and the National Institutes of Health. Oh, and he's the brother of Raum Emanuel.
Anyway, he wrote an article in The Atlantic titled Why I Hope to Die at 75.
In the article, Emanuel argues that we've not extended life so much as we've extended dying, which isn't riding off into the sunset with quite the same zest and enthusiasm as the wellness industry would have us believe.
But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
Emanuel isn't advocating suicide or euthanasia; he actually opposes legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. He's advocating (at least for himself) not taking drastic measures past the age of 75 to prolong life. He's talking here about chemotherapy, antibiotics and even the flu shot. His argument is to let nature take its course at this point and die from the flu, for example, rather than a prolonged stay in a nursing facility fighting a drawn-out disease.
Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.
I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop.
Emanuel seems to agree that we should all remain as fit and active as possible, but he's not buying into the idea that we can cheat time or death or aging altogether.
I see his point, and his article was an interesting, thought-provoking read.
Author Barbara Ehrenreich is also speaking out about death and dying and has a book out about the idea:
I haven't read Ehrenreich's book and am not jumping at it given the 2-star review on Amazon. I did read her book entitled Nickled & Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. It was interesting but also problematic in some respects. Again, that's another post. Maybe I'll peruse this book at the library before committing to a purchase because based on the fact that Ehrenreich has a PhD in cellular immunology, I think she may well offer an interesting, different viewpoint.
For now, an interview with Ehrenreich in The Guardian may be a good enough start.
She writes about a sense of peace she's found now that she's at the age of 76. Four years ago, Ehrenreich decided she was fine with dying, that she'd lived a long and full life, and if death came to her, she didn't feel the need to fight it.
Those are my words, not hers, but that is the gist I got from her interview.
Also, Ehrenreich is a breast cancer survivor, and she says she'll not be going through chemo again, spending a good year of what precious years she has left enduring that struggle. Like Emanuel, she's not talking about suicide. Ehrenreich's boundaries include seeking help for acute/emergent health problems but not to go digging around and looking for issues to address.
Ehrenreich says to The Guardian:
I tend to worry that a lot of my friends who are my age don’t get to that point. They’re frantically scrambling for new things that might prolong their lives.
I see her point: when do we stop trying to fix everything that is broken or prevent it from breaking at all and just sit back and enjoy the time we have?
Perhaps that's the question here: is there an age or point for each of us when we stop trying to prolong life?
I've watched several loved-ones suffer incredibly with age, living in nursing homes and asking, out loud, to simply be allowed to die.
Having said all of that, when I was a freshman in college, one of my classmates was a woman in her 80s. Her 80s! I typed her essays for her, and her husband made me lunch. He was still working full-time as an accountant in his 90s. So, not every story is the same.
I don't know how I'll feel when I'm older. I hardly sometimes know who I feel now...day-to-day. But these articles, both written by people older than I and with more life experience, do make me think about the issues of health and time.
The great equalizer.
Beyond anything else, whether I agree with Emanuel and Ehrenreich in their beliefs or embrace their philosophies (which seems silly for me at 42), their words have made me stop and consider whether or not I am making the most of my time now.
Am I embracing these years or waiting for some future moment to feel my best, to eat the dessert, to call a friend, to take a trip, to work my little ass off or whatever else I'm not doing when I'm scanning IG again?
I mean...obviously the answer is no.
And perhaps the point is to not waste time either whiling it away OR investing in some sort of magical thinking (or anxiety) that tells me if I exercise enough and take enough fancy vitamin packets, I'll cheat aging, death and time altogether.
The moment is now.
It makes me think of Satre's quote, which I wrote about back in March:
I also came across this quote the other day:
Why didn’t I learn to treat everything like it was the last time. My greatest regret was how much I believed in the future.
Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
I don't know that we can treat everything like it's the last time, but isn't that bit so true: my greatest regret was how much I believed in the future.
With all of that heavy thought, I'm off to clean this house. Sandy is basking in the sun on the lawn because she knows how to live. We're having enchiladas for dinner because the kids scarfed those up earlier this week, and if the kids will scarf up a meal, I'm making it to death.
I've got 2 new bottles of wine to open depending on our mood. I'm sure you're all waiting with bated breath for tomorrow's Friday Five - rose or cabernet?
Your guess is as good as mine.