You’re probably rolling your eyes at this apparent not-joy-t0-the-world holiday season post. But hang in here with me – this topic could fuel unusual & maybe even helpful family dinner conversations. Still skeptical? Well, just remind yourself that there’s nothing more important to religious holidays than life & death.
Worrying about death is uniquely the province of the human primate. It’s where religion has a big jump on science: our species spent its early millennia around the campfire constructing stories of why & what & how & where & when. Science only came along within the past 2,500 or so years…a mere scratch (albeit getting deeper daily) on the surface of our ancient narratives. It’s no wonder we have a hard time letting them go.
Trying to grasp the fact of death, surviving others’, & anticipating our own are arguably among the most emotionally painful experiences of being human. Other primates & mammals (& also, I’ve observed, chickens) may mourn the death of their offspring or peers or elders, but it seems only humans can anticipate this end for themselves. It’s no wonder we avoid the topic.
I recently read a provocative article about this particular avoidance (…one of many things humans love to ignore – doing something about global warming being another…): Why I hope to die at 75 by Ezekiel J. Emanuel. The first hit from this article is the reminder that now we really do have something to worry about: living too long. Average human life spans have increased significantly in the past 100 years, primarily as a result of much lower rates of infant death & death by disease. More of us (& there are a lot more of us now) are living longer than ever, & instead of these diseases, we’re dying of chronic conditions that accompany old age (heart disease, cancer, etc). Many older folks are losing their minds in the process: 1/3 of people over age 85 have Alzheimer’s disease.
So, how old is old enough? That’s the resonating question of this essay. In particular, the author questions the myriad measures routinely promoted by the US health care system to prolong the life of what he calls the ‘American Immortal’. While not a part of this particular opinion piece, others have noted that about 25% of all US health care expenditures are made within the last year of life. Some have accused Emanuel of being “adolescent” in his opinions (after all, he’s only 57…75 seemed old to me too when I was in my 50’s…) & others have reacted by touting the wonders of old age. Of course, it’s the concept, not the number, that’s worthy of some thought & maybe, action…or rather, in this case, inaction.
These sorts of things have been on my mind for a while now, but Emanuel’s article reminds me that we do have a choice in this. The palliative care & compassionate death movements are right-on in this regard, but our choices need to start way earlier than the last days…as in months & years before our DNR’s & advance directives kick in. While we’re still of (at least moderately, we hope) sound mind.
I don’t want to live to be 100. or even 90, really. I know, I know, once I’m faced with a death more imminent than it feels like at this moment, my tune could change, & I’m sure I’ll be sad to miss seeing how things turn out. My ideal post-death scenario (which, granted, isn’t very original) would be to time travel about 200 years into the future…long enough that I wouldn’t know anybody but short enough to see if we figured out how to survive on a frightfully hotter home planet.
If I can, I’ll let you know what I find out – around the campfire of course.
ps., all this rambling is mostly just a way of sharing a slightly-dark tune about being alive…a little break for you from ubiquitous jingling. We’re nearing the winter solstice, after all.
let me be the first to acknowledge that the gap between intent & realization is often deep & wide.
My Mom turns 90 next month… It’s longer than she expected to live, longer than anyone in her immediate family has lived, but not as long as her grandfather, who died at 104. She’s in good health, she lives alone, takes care of herself, and has reasonable control of her faculties. (Memory loss not withstanding… but even I have that these days.)
I never ask her if she is glad to be this old. It would imply that I don’t want her around,and that’s not true at all. I’d love to have her around forever. And I dread the day I get the call that she is no longer with us. Even at my age (pushing very hard on 70), Mom is still very important. But that’s a selfish reason. Suppose she doesn’t want to hang around? After all, many of her dearest friends are gone, and she has only one remaining sibling. What’s that like — going to one funeral after another, seeing your closest relationships go beneath the ground?
How long would I want to live? I’ve told my kids to pull the plug if they put chocolate under my nose and I don’t react. But the truth is that I want to live quite a long time. It’s a bit disconcerting to me to realize I’m looking at maybe 20 more years if I have my mother’s luck. It sounds like a lot. But look at how quickly time passes as we get older. It’s like riding a wagon downhill with increasing speed. Before you know it, you’re at the stop sign.
donna – i too feel like time seems to pass more quickly these days, was curious about that & found this: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/2013/12/18/why-does-time-fly-as-we-get-older/. i love your fb posts about you mom – she seems to be one of the lucky ones who’s doing great at 90 & i’m sure she’ll live a healthy life for many more years. of course, this post has nothing to do with wishing anyone gone, ourselves included…rather it’s addressing some thinking currently going on about medical intervention standards which seem to be only oriented toward (perhaps unnecessarily & unhappily) prolonging life.
Thanks for that article. I’ve always thought that time was a relative thing, so I pictured it as described in item two:
2. The amount of time passed relative to one’s age varies. For a 5-year-old, one year is 20% of their entire life. For a 50-year-old, however, one year is only 2% of their life. This “ratio theory,” proposed by Janet in 1877, suggests that we are constantly comparing time intervals with the total amount of time we’ve already lived.
Thinks: Bertrand Russell, Ernst Meyr. (Disclosure: I’m 76)
And I should have added Jacques Barzun, but (ouch!) the name slipped my mind.
paul – thanks for your comment/s. these amazing guys are on one far end of that bell curve, where we’d all love to be but most likely won’t…hope to see you there too, though!
my cousin roy died two days ago. we talked about these kinds of things the last time i visited. he was fortunate to find joy in his life in spite of pain & suffering, & in the end he had the fortitude to make his own choice. love to you roy. https://everydayprimate.org/2012/05/16/gay-marriage-cousins-bonobos/
came across the tattoo photo today & just had to add it into this post.
Pingback: there’s still no cure for dying – The Good Death Society Blog
Last year I emailed Ezekiel J. Emanuel to ask if he still subscribes to the ideas he wrote about in 2014 – given that he’s now 5 years older. Here is his response: “I remain committed to my ideas. No change in perspective.” (8/5/19) I find myself wishing he would bring some of these ideas into his recent MSNBC programs about COVID-19.