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The Measure of a Life

Ezekiel Emanuel wants to live for seventy-five years and not a day more. In an article called “Why I Hope to Die at 75” published in The Atlantic, he makes the case for living a full and productive life for as long as this is statistically likely, and for exiting stage right long before the possibility of dementia and depressing decline begin to take over. We are living longer, Emanuel argues, but often the years that we gain are not very good or desirable ones. Indeed, with some researchers forecasting a “tsunami of dementia” by 2050, we may be inclined to agree with Emanuel’s conclusions: Get me out of here long before any of that begins to show up! He’s not arguing for euthanasia (in fact, he’s against it); he is simply expressing how he would prefer things to go.

The article is a very interesting one and is well worth reading. I have said similar things myself to anyone who will listen. I am (hopefully) a few years away from some of these realities, but I obviously have precisely zero interest in wasting away in a nursing home or being held captive to the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. I have seen the toll this takes on individuals and families, and it is devastating.  I would far rather die quickly and early than spend two decades dying incrementally. I would rather still be me when I die than to have those around me lose the me they love (or at least tolerate) and remember in painful stages.

And yet, even having said all this, I bristled a bit at how the author framed things in this article. In particular, I have questions about his understanding of a “productive life.”

The image from the article summarizes Emanuel’s general approach to evaluating how long one should want to live.

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Emanuel notes that the average age of Nobel prize winners is 48. And that few composers, authors, scientists, etc. contribute much that is new or groundbreaking beyond 50-60ish. The conclusion that I suppose he means for us to draw is that once we are more than a handful of years past our productive “prime,” it’s all losses the rest of the way, and the less of that the better. He acknowledges that there are other ways to find meaning and value in later years (he talks specifically about a seventy year-old university colleague who had taken great pleasure in mentoring students later in his life, even if he wasn’t as productive academically), but he describes even this as “a constricting of our ambitions and expectations.” In other words, things like this are what people who can no longer be “productive” have to settle for. You take what you can get, I suppose, once you’re on the back half of the productivity bell curve.

I wonder about this bell curve, though. What if Emanuel might have it backwards? What if the measure of the value of a human life is not necessarily about achievement and ambition but about learning the centrality of love? What if it’s not about squeezing the maximum output from our brains in their prime, but about gradually, crucially, hopefully coming to the realization that relationship is what we were made for and that no list of awards and achievements can take the place of these?  We’ve all heard about the proverbial man on his deathbed wishing not that he had worked more and accomplished more but that he had invested more in those he loved.

If, as Scripture tells us, love is what we were made for—if how and who we love defines whether or not we have lived well—then seventy-five becomes a more or less arbitrary number. I know people in their eighties and nineties who are not “productive” by Emanuel’s standards, whose physical “quality of life” has dramatically declined over the past decades, and who would, in some cases, be more than happy to leave this world behind. These people will never build another house or write another article, never cure another illness or prepare another meal, never grow another garden or raise another child. They are on the wrong end of the bell curve above.

But they are, in many ways, more skilled at and committed to love than they were at 30, 40, or 60. They have become more gracious and accepting of others and more forgiving of themselves. They pray and hope and long for goodness in ways they probably couldn’t articulate or understand several decades ago. They have become more committed to others. They have grown closer to God. They are in their “prime” at ninety, no matter how “productive” they may have been earlier in life.

I don’t know how long I will live. None of us do, of course. As I said, I would rather bid adieu to this life sooner than later if “later” means decades of mental and physical struggle, but I know that God can and does meet us in dark valleys and that there are lessons that can only be learned through suffering.  More importantly, though, rather than analyzing statistics and bell curves of a narrowly defined “productivity” and deciding upon the optimal exit age, I would prefer to hope and pray that however long I live, I am growing in the love of God and others until the day I die.  The capacity to love, more than anything else, is the measure of a human life.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. mmartha #

    Though this isn’t an apology, I acknowledge working out of certain books much more often than others !
    I’m always eager to share the theological help of Ellen Davis. In Getting Involved with God, Ch. 13, “Like Grass I’m Dried Up ” (based on Ps. 102), she targets this area. A quote from p.165: ” We confess a faith that is both ancient and future-bound, and doing so we may lose a little of our habitual preoccupation with self, preoccupation that so greatly magnifies our present anxieties and makes our losses loom so large.”
    Almost all scripture translations Dr. Davis does herself and in this chapter, she takes up other ages than old age. Etty Hillesum, who died very early (I believe at 29) at Auschwitz, said she wanted to give whatever assistance she could “wherever it has pleased God to place me.”
    Davis continues (pp.166-7) that “surrendering ourselves in all our frailty into God’s hands, thus we enter into eternity.”

    September 23, 2014
    • We confess a faith that is both ancient and future-bound, and doing so we may lose a little of our habitual preoccupation with self, preoccupation that so greatly magnifies our present anxieties and makes our losses loom so large.

      This is a great (and sobering) quote, particularly the ending. Thanks for sharing it.

      September 24, 2014
  2. mike #

    Growing old has been a frequent topic for my wife and I this year. We’re both approaching 60 and already experiencing the aches and pains and whatnot that often accompany growing older. A book recently found me titled “A Season of Mystery” by Paula Huston, in it she lays out 10 spiritual practices for embracing a happier second half of life. I highly recommend it to anyone struggling with growing old.
    Isn’t it a shame that most of us must wait until the waning years of our lives before the proverbial scales fall from our eyes so that we finally see what was really important. And equally sad is the fact that some of us wont have the cognitive faculties to know it.

    September 23, 2014
    • Isn’t it a shame that most of us must wait until the waning years of our lives before the proverbial scales fall from our eyes so that we finally see what was really important.

      Yes, it truly is. Hopefully those of us who are bit further away from these issues can learn from those who have gone before us and prioritize better now.

      September 24, 2014
  3. John H Neufeld, Winnipeg, MB #

    I appreciate your sharing of this study and your conclusion but I think it may not be as straightforward as it seems on the surface. There seem to be a number of other circumstances, beside loss of memory, that in effect minimize or even eliminate the capacity to love. This understanding of the measure of life may also be a slippery slope. The ability to love also depends on health factors etc. To act lovingly or even to having loving intentions may be interfered with e.g. by palliative drugs, even though there is no dementia. The ability to love involves mental awareness of self and others and situations. Do such conditions then lead to the same conclusions that the author, Emmanuel, suggested?

    September 24, 2014
    • If I lay as a vegetable, unaware of self and surroundings and another cares for me in love, grace abounds. God’s will is being done and I am a needed part of the process.Likely without the necessary cognitive skills, being the lover may be beyond my grasp but my need to be loved may never be greater….am I prepared for the love of God, to be so humbled….to be used as an agent of grace for another?

      And if I truly make that commitment today, say yes to that plan if it be God’s will for me, am I not both the lover and the loved?

      September 24, 2014
      • mike #

        What a great insight, Paul.
        That we could be intentionally used by God (without our knowledge) as part of the Divine scheme that compels others to manifest the Love of God.

        “All things work together for Good….”

        September 24, 2014
    • Yes, John, you are of course right—it’s not as though we can just separate the capacity to give and receive love from cognitive function. The two are connected. Clearly there are some forms of mental deterioration that have devastating consequences not only on “productivity” (narrowly construed) but on our relational abilities as well.

      I guess I was just pushing back against the bell-curve model of the value of a human life that I felt the author was implicitly setting forward. I think our culture is already one that devalues the old and exalts the young and has a distorted and unhealthy understanding of what makes a life valuable, worth living, worth preserving. This articles seems like more of the same.

      From a Christian perspective, I think that “productivity” ought never to be the ultimate measure of a human life. The “weak,” the “poor,” the broken and the beaten down, the suffering and the neglected… Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is closer to them than those in the right portion of the bell curve. And, of course, we must never underestimate the role that suffering and impairment (mental or physical) might play in drawing us closer to God. I hope this doesn’t sound like I am trivializing suffering—I have simply seen and heard of too many cases where people have testified that this is true.

      And, as Paul quite rightly says above, who knows what role we might be called to play in love’s economy, whether we are giving and receiving it? Who knows if or how we might be agents of grace to one another even once we are long past our best before date according to the bell curves of productivity?

      September 24, 2014

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