Photo: Alan Gendelman
Louie C.K. does a great bit where he talks about facing adversity and how those who can do it without curling up into a ball and crying like a baby are often hailed as courageous. Losing a body part, battling cancer, fighting a war, overcoming a seemingly insurmountable loss, Louie can't imagine what it takes to be able to do something like that. "I have only enough courage for a perfect life," he says, in predictably self-deprecating fashion. I've been through a lot in my life, some of it the result of circumstances beyond my control and some of it the result of my own stupidity. But I think about that Louie line a lot, even if it is just part of a routine. True, you never know what you're capable of until you're tested, but I'm not sure I'd have it in me to face a life in which every day was a painful struggle. I suffer from depression as it is, so I can't imagine having to contend, say, with physical impediments compounding my psychic ones. This is why I have no desire to live to 100-years-old even if you told me modern medicine could assure it.
I'm obviously not the only person who feels this way, because a couple of weeks ago The Atlantic published a piece that generated quite a bit of controversy. It was titled "Why I Hope to Die at 75" and was written by a bioethicist named Ezekiel Emanuel. The article is exactly as advertised: while Emanuel doesn't plan to off himself at 75 or anything, he says that if he died at that age he'd have no problem with it. In fact, he would prefer it. His reasoning is as sound as it is succinct. Death, he argues, is an inevitability, therefore the only question is how long it can be delayed and whether a decent quality of life can be maintained during that time period. Medical science can now keep a person alive for a very long time, but what it can't do is guarantee the quality of life that person has spent most of his or her days being accustomed to.
Emanuel's mind, therefore, is made up:
I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.
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.
By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die. And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want—that is not my business.
Maybe others can argue with Ezekiel Emanuel here, but I certainly can't. For me, being around much longer than maybe 75 -- should I make it even that long given all the years I probably robbed myself of in my 20s -- would be something I do for the benefit of others rather than myself. As Emanuel says about his own children, I'm sure my daughter wouldn't enjoy the idea of my checking out any earlier than absolutely necessary and I've known plenty of people during my life who have hung on strictly to be able to mark this milestone or that for their loved ones. But removing that factor, if I did manage to reach my twilight years and find I had the ability to make the decision for myself, I'd likely accept that a life in which I'm on a downward slope to the inevitable and I'm unable anymore to do the things that make me me amounts to no life at all. It simply wouldn't be worth it and, as Emanuel implies, it would be better to get out before things go really bad.
As I write this I'm aware of a somewhat grotesque irony: my parents are almost 75-years-old and are still pretty healthy overall. From that same selfish perspective I'll one day expect from my own child, I don't want them shuffling off this mortal coil anytime soon. I don't know how I could argue with them, though -- either of them -- if they told me they felt like they'd done all they wanted and needed to do in this world and wouldn't mind wrapping it all up. Granted the thing about this entire "debate" is that it's thoroughly academic, given that neither Ezekiel Emanuel nor myself is talking about actively taking steps to end a life. Emanuel admits that he has no plans to kill himself at 75 if nature fails to do it for him -- he's now 57 and is in very good health -- and therefore what he's arguing is essentially a personal preference and nothing more.
But the questions Emanuel raises about continuing to live long after you're not really living are good ones, even if they are a little uncomfortable to ponder. Personally, I've already lived longer than I planned to when I was younger. I never could've imagined the life I live now, one in which I feel every minute of my 44 years and wonder constantly whether my misspent youth is something to revel in or lament. An all-or-nothing life is great except for the part where it catches up to you. The downside to spending most of your existence assuming tomorrow won't come is that when it does you have no idea what the hell to do with it. The life I've lead definitely hasn't been, as Louie says, "perfect," but it's at least been interesting -- interesting enough to where if I awoke each morning to find another meaningless uphill fight with nothing left to look forward to, I'd probably just want it over.
I'm not sure I'd have the courage, or even will, to do anything else.