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.