|Jean Stimmell ©2008|
I wrote last week about why our national economy can’t endlessly grow – neither can individuals. That has viscerally hit home for me after soldiering through four cancers.
My unease intensified after reading an old article in Atlantic Magazine by an oncologist and bioethicist entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” He argued, “that society and families – and you – will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly.”1
He accuses Americans of seeking immortality through our obsession with eternal growth: “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.” Unfortunately, this campaign has failed: Over the last 50 years, “health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process.”
Before the advent of modern medicine, people, as a rule, passed quickly, thus avoiding long, painful deaths. He quotes from a turn-of-the-century medical textbook: “Pneumonia may well be called the friend of the aged. Taken off by it in an acute, short, not often painful illness, the old man escapes those ‘cold gradations of decay’ so distressing to himself and to his friends.”
I've already experienced some of these 'cold gradations of decay.' Hearing aids and an artificial knee are poor substitutes for the real thing. And my cancers, now thankfully in remission, have taken a lasting toll through surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
Don't get me wrong: I'm grateful to be still kicking and in relatively good shape – in no small part because of superior care from Concord Hospital. I still hike, garden, and cut my firewood, albeit at a slower pace. Nevertheless, I will be reluctant to submit to more heavy-duty medical treatment in the future because of the additional toll it will take on my compromised body, coupled with the hardship of enduring another lengthy and painful recovery process.
Nevertheless, I see a bright side: my journey has helped me make peace with my mortality. In 1988, Barbara Ehrenreich, now sadly deceased, wrote a searing book on this subject: "Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer."
“We may buy expensive anti-aging products or cosmetic surgery, get preventive screenings and eat more kale, or throw ourselves into meditation and spirituality. But all these things offer only the illusion of control. How to live well, even joyously, while accepting our mortality -- that is the vitally important philosophical challenge of this book.2”
I wholeheartedly agree. Living out our lives as if death didn't exist is a tragedy. That's because, in the words of Sean Daney, the acclaimed movie critic, it is death that bestows our lives with "gravity and importance." He said that the filmmaker's role – and it is true for all of us – is to interpret "The weight of life through the certainty of death.”3
Unfortunately, as Ehrenreich points out about contemporary society, because we are in denial about death, we have made no preparation for leaving it: “We treat aging as an outrage or, worse, as a sin. In our addiction to betterment, we’ve replaced “health” — an absence of sickness — with the amorphous “wellness” and a flurry of overtesting, fad diets and pointless “alternative” treatments.”4
Ehrenreich. makes the point that rather than investing the majority of our medical resources on the elderly, as our nation does now, we should invest instead in the health of our children and younger folks, who are in their productive years.
It goes without saying: we would all like to live longer and healthier lives; “the question is how much of our lives should be devoted to this project, when we all, or at least most of us, have other, often more consequential things to do.”5 She would rather take a walk in nature than take a trip to the hospital for a screening test.
I feel the same.
I've lived a long life of striving: striving to get good grades in school, master a meaningful occupation, raise my family, and, hopefully, make a slight, positive difference in the world. At 77, I have no desire to continue striving to live as long as possible. Instead, I would rather kick back and feel the sun on my face, listen to the birds sing, and enjoy my friends while having a beer.
I’ve been made aware, however, if I do make it to one hundred, certain exceptions open up, as told in this anecdote by Nir Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research.
Barzilai once visited a centenarian; she was smoking a cigarette when she opened the door. "I said, 'Helen, nobody told you to stop smoking?'"
"And she said, 'You know, the four doctors who told me to stop smoking? They all died."6
So it goes…
5 Ehrenreich, Barbara. Natural Causes . Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition. Location 126