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.
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.