Pondering a Timely Death

Reed JolleyCommunity News

People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ‘bout my generation)
Just because we get around (Talkin’ ‘bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ‘bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ‘bout my generation)

Good poetry it is not, but the song, My Generation, released in 1965, became something of an anthem for a youth culture convinced it would never grow old.  Pete Townsend, songwriter for The Who, thought death was better than aging.  At least this fledgling rock star felt that way at age twenty when he wrote this song that catapulted his band to international stardom.  Townsend is still alive at sixty-nine, now hard of hearing, but still making music.

Last month fifty-seven-year-old Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel wrote a cover story for The Atlantic that echoes The Who.  Emanuel’s essay is provocatively titled, Why I Hope to Die at 75.  The opening sentences are startling:

That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.

Dr. Emanuel is clear.  He isn’t saying he will commit suicide, nor is he arguing for the legalization of euthanasia.  It is just that he figures, by age seventy-five, he will have had a good run, and it will be time to die.  The arguments Emanuel assembles to buttress his cynicism about old age are thorough:  The elderly tend to become disabled.  The elderly are not as creative as the young.  Old people become “ineffectual, even pathetic.” Besides, the elderly are expensive and un-useful.  And living too long “places real emotional weights on our progeny.”  For these and other reasons, Dr. Emanuel says that “75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop.”

Dr. Emanuel, a career bioethicist, is critical of our society’s heroic efforts to prolong life.  Modern medicine is, by nature, obsessively compulsive and quite profitable.  We can applaud Emanuel’s concerns about bioethics in a technological age, but there is so much Emanuel misses.

Emanuel spends just two sentences on the value of multiple generations in family life—and then paragraph after paragraph on the burden of longevity.  One of his central fears is that those who grow too old will be remembered as “stooped and sluggish, forgetful and repetitive” rather than “active, vigorous, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm, [and] loving.”

I can’t help but ask, is there anyone more engaged with a four-year-old than a grandfather?  Is anyone more loving than a great-grandmother?  And I can’t help but recall the laughter I enjoyed with my grandparents and Lisa’s grandparents as they approached what some have called the evening of life.  My own parents, now in their mid-eighties, are anything but the burden that Emanuel describes. They are, well, they are my parents.  And they are among our best friends.  Lisa and I are deeply thankful for them, for their longevity, for their wisdom, their counsel, and their presence in our lives.  How shortchanged we would have been had they died at seventy-five.

But the fact that I had wonderful grandparents and am very close to my mom and dad is beside the point.  The Bible teaches us that life is both from God and for God.  God creates life, and it is his gift to us, not our possession.  That is why both abortion and suicide are always an affront to our Creator.  Always.  We are not sovereign over life; God is.  And God is sovereign over the beginning of life and sovereign over the end of life.  As Romans 14:7 states, None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.

But we have forgotten God.  Claiming to be wise, we have become fools.  The trivialization of life is one consequence of our folly.  One prominent news story this month is the intention of Brittany Maynard to take her life on November 1.  Maynard has been diagnosed with glioblastoma, a brain tumor, and has only months to live.  She recently appeared onPeople Magazine with the cover line, My Decision to Die.  Should we ever make a decision to die?  Joni Eareckson Tada weighed in with a short essay, written for people who think like Maynard thinks.

Unfortunately, three countries and five states have now determined that individuals can make these choices for themselves. This is what happens when God is removed: The moral consensus that has guided that society begins to unravel. People in this country have bought into the premise that one really is better off dead than disabled.

Tada is right.  We live in a society that has cheapened life.  We have come to believe that unless “life” measures up to our standards of “quality,” it is disposable, extinguishable.  Furthermore, a life that proves to be inconvenient to us is liable to be snuffed out.  Tada continues:

In the Netherlands, for instance, doctors are free to decide whether a child born with a disability should live. The government has come up with a guideline of standards and if the medical team believes that the child — or the parents — would face significant suffering, then that infant can be euthanized.

In our country we have come to believe that the beginning of life is a “choice.”  Couples “choose” to have a child—or “choose” not to have a child. And thus abortion has come to be understood as a fail-safe birth-control method under the Orwellian guise of “reproductive freedom.”  (I write this essay with today’s Los Angeles Times on my desk.  This morning’s edition has a front-page article on a 2014 California law that authorized nurse practitioners, certified midwives, and physician assistants to perform first-trimester abortions.  It turns out there weren’t enough doctors available to meet the demand.)

The end of life is increasingly cheapened as well.  It should give us more than a little concern that Ezekiel Emanuel was one of the chief designers of the Affordable Care Act and is a medical advisor to the president’s administration.  One of the fears about the ACA was the rationing of medication for the elderly.  Ezekiel Emanuel goes so far as to say that people over seventy-five use more than their fair share of our health-care resources.  His example: flu shots!  “Flu shots are out” for the elderly, according to Emanuel.  Better saved for the young who have their lives before them.

Ezekiel Emanuel hopes to die at seventy-five.  I plan to die when God says it is time. The Bible teaches that it is God—not we whom he created— who numbers our days.  In fact, as Psalm 139:16 puts it, All the days ordained for me were written in his book before one of them came to be!  For the Christian, the cynicism of Dr. Emanuel is replaced by the confidence that God knows what he is doing.