Prominent Doctor: I Want to Die at 75

“Seventy-five. That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.”

That’s how prominent medical doctor, bioethicist, and health care reformer Ezekiel Emmanuel began a recent essay for The Atlantic. And while he makes it clear that he’s opposed to taking his own life, Emmanuel does explain that, once he hits his designated age, his desire will significantly affect the choices he makes with regard to medical care.

Having participated in a few bruising political battles surrounding healthcare, Emmanuel is no stranger to controversy. Even so, I found his article to be a thoughtful reflection on the realities of aging. A good deal of what he wrote strikes me as compelling, while  parts were deeply problematic. All in all, the piece is great starting point to wrestle with several issues from a biblically informed perspective

In that spirit, I won’t claim anything like the final word on these things, but a handful of thoughts came to mind as I’ve been considering what Emmanuel’s wrote. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list of the issues at play, but it’s a start:

1. Youth and immortality is a cultural idol.

Emmanuel is on point when he writes:

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.

What he labels a “cultural type,” I might call a cultural idolatry. As Christians, we should appropriately seek to roll back the effects of the fall, including disease, injuries, and in a limited fashion, even death. But this good work can often be distorted: we begin to view our ultimate happiness as dependent upon the quest for life without end, or at least a life without aging and problems. But this is a quest that will always end in failure this side of Christ’s return, making this idol incapable of bearing the weight we place upon it.

2. The realities of death and disease are a forceful reminder of our limitations.

Human beings have a stubborn tendency to believe we can overcome every obstacle and conquer every problem. But the realities associated with disease and aging tell a different story. While we’ve made astonishing gains in the medical field, death remains a foe we cannot conquer. And as Emmanuel notes (citing the work of another researcher): “Over the past 50 years, health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process.”

3. Our desire to circumvent the effects of disease and aging are often rooted in a problematic desire to be the master of our own lives.

Emmanuel is realistic about the problems we encounter as we age, as well as our tendency to tell ourselves that we’ll be exceptions to the rule. In this way, he’s bursting the bubble of our imagined self-autonomy. But I can’t help but think his preferred response has roots in the same soil. He notes that aging brings with it a loss of creativity and productivity. He refers to the significant emotional and financial burdens we often place on loved ones due to the complications of advanced age. He argues that aged parents make it difficult for children to “have enough time for their own lives, out of their parents’ shadows.” He even mentions that we’d much rather our loved ones remember us as vital, healthy individuals rather than in our decline. Thus the desire to die at 75, the “somewhat arbitrarily chosen…moment when we have lived a rich and complete life, and have hopefully imparted the right memories to our children.”

But all this fails to consider the potential redemptive effects of difficulty, weakness, and dependence. What if being confronted with the fact that we’re not the masters of our own lives, that we can’t decide when and on what terms we die, is exactly what God wants us to face? What if dying well—dying faithfully and, yes, dependently—is what God desires our loved ones to see? What if he intends to teach them through the responsibility of caring for us in our helplessness?

Along these lines, it’s interesting to contrast Emmanuel’s perspective with that of the apostle Paul, when he was confronted with a “thorn in the flesh” of unknown origin:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:8-10)

4 Comments

  1. Sarah Gilliam said:

    Easy to say when you are young and healthy but more of a trust issue when you (I) continue to worsen with no hope of healing.

  2. Sarah: I assume you’re referring to my last point, and of course you’re exactly right. If I communicated in any way that what I’m suggesting is easy to walk through, I very much apologize. I had actually intended to make just the opposite clear, but I failed to include anything along those lines in my post. Nor am I suggesting that we should pursue prolonged life/medical care at any cost: each situation is different. And Christians can legitimately long to be freed from their present challenges and taken to be with Christ–Paul certainly did (Phil. 1). Finally, and for what it’s worth, my family and I have not been strangers to many of these realities. What I wrote is something I need to hear.

  3. Jeri Mattson said:

    Thank you for this post. We are responsible for four relatives, the youngest of whom soon will be 87, and all of whom are in care facilities. It’s been a wrenching year, and I’ve besieged God for a biblical perspective, along with more patience, adequate rest, and some sort of ability to make plans that don’t get derailed! I was just asking my husband what he thinks God’s purpose is for life in circumstances such as these. Your post is a greatly needed breath of encouragement.

  4. Jeri: I’m glad you found the post encouraging, and I pray that God would give you the grace to walk faithfully in the midst of struggle and difficulty.

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