Should I Die At 75? Oh, Wait. Too Late.

many candlesOn September 17, the very day–I mean, the exact day I turned 77, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s essay, “Why I hope to Die at 75” appeared in The Atlantic magazine.   You could have knocked me over with a feather.  Really?  (We old people say, “really?” while you say, “seriously?”.  There’s one difference right there.)

Emanuel is a bioethicist and breast oncologist who is for Obamacare and universal health care and against euthanasia for the aged.  Nevertheless, he apparently believes that because most people over 75 are no longer as vibrant as most people under 75, and many of them have insurmountable health issues, there should be an arbitrary cut-off date after which any reasonable human being would do humanity a favor and go find themselves a nice iceberg somewhere and float off into the darkness. Singing.

I have admired Zeke Emanuel for. . . I don’t know. . . a long time now. I can’t remember.  (Don’t kill me!)  I always thought that of all the Emanuels, he had his head on straightest.  But it could be that on the very day I turned 77 my brain read Emanuel’s piece, took notice that I was exactly two years past the cut-off date, and got confused about what it was supposed to do now.  Whatever happened, I don’t get this guy.  Not this time.

He said:

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.

Ooooh. . . weeping here.  So sweet!  (Except for that part about “dying at 75 will not be a tragedy”.   Easy for him to say.)

And then he said:

. . .the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us. . . This age-creativity relationship is a statistical association, the product of averages; individuals vary from this trajectory. Indeed, everyone in a creative profession thinks they will be, like my collaborator, in the long tail of the curve. There are late bloomers. As my friends who enumerate them do, we hold on to them for hope. It is true, people can continue to be productive past 75—to write and publish, to draw, carve, and sculpt, to compose. But there is no getting around the data. By definition, few of us can be exceptions. Moreover, we need to ask how much of what “Old Thinkers,” as Harvey C. Lehman called them in his 1953 Age and Achievement, produce is novel rather than reiterative and repetitive of previous ideas. The age-creativity curve—especially the decline—endures across cultures and throughout history, suggesting some deep underlying biological determinism probably related to brain plasticity.

Hold on a minute.  Old Thinkers.  Processing. . .

Nope.  Nothing. Never mind.

There are people who are still brilliant–or at least special–long past the time most of us would have given up and moved on.  They’re Emanuel’s exceptions and the older these people get the more they become potential national treasures.  It’s because they’ve beaten the odds and are living proof that, even at such an advanced age, they still have much to contribute.  It’s also true that younger admirers have put themselves in their place and feel better about their own chances of making waves for that long.  But too often they stop celebrating that person’s achievements and begin celebrating their longevity.  Any mention of them from then on ends up being a eulogy. As if whatever they were is in the distant past and now they just are.  This sort of thing doesn’t help.

A cut-off date of, say, 75 when even Emanuel, the chooser of the cut-off date, admits that nobody ages in the same way during the same time-frame, is so dumb all I can figure is that he needed an attention-getter to make a few points about how terrible it will be when he’s no longer at the top of his game.

Take it from me, Zeke.  You’ll get over it.


About constantcommoner

Ramona Grigg. Freelancer, blogger, essayist, photographer, dreamer. Island dweller. Yooper.
This entry was posted in Art and Artists, Beauty and joy, Social Justice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Should I Die At 75? Oh, Wait. Too Late.

  1. In 1613, at the age of 66, Cervantes wrote Exemplary Novels. In the preface, he mentioned that he only had six teeth left in his mouth (“in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other”). He would die only three years later. But the year before he died, he wrote perhaps the greatest novel ever: Don Quixote Part 2. I still find it shocking that the first “modern” novel was also the first postmodern novel.

    I realize that Cervantes never made it to the magic 75 year threshold, but given the environment in which he lived — his years living as a slave, loss of his left hand, prison time — I think we can safely assume that anyone would have assumed his best days were well behind him at 55. Yet he not only went on to do his best work; he went on to do the best work.

    I understand that Emanuel would say that Cervantes was just way out there on the tail of the normal distribution. But so what?! Aren’t a billion mediocrities like myself worth just one Cervantes?

    But Emanuel’s argument is invalid because of its shocking level of class smugness. Were the last years of Jonas Salk a waste because he was no longer curing diseases? The argument seems to flirt very much with eugenics. If one isn’t pushing society forward one is of no value? I don’t get it, or at least, I don’t accept it. But I’m sure that Emanuel is just being provocative.

    I am only (!) fifty, yet I could not possibility have predicted the joys of my current life only two decades ago. It is true: the crispness of thinking is not what it once was. I can’t solve differential equations with the ease I once could. But my mind is not riddled with holes where my brilliance once resided. Now I think about profound things that I didn’t even know existed back them. And above all: I’m a better person than I was then. I look back at me then with wry embarrassment. And I certainly hope that at 75, I will look back at me now with even more wry embarrassment.

    Of course, I haven’t given up on writing my own Don Quixote.

    Happy birthday! I hope you have a very long tail…


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