Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

A Death Wish

I am looking at the calendar, and in a few days it will be six months…six months since the passing of my father. I miss my dad at times. I miss his phone calls. I miss talking about the Chargers this time of year. But I don’t miss his decline. It was difficult to see a man who was once so industrious succumb to a life lived largely from a chair. I realize that slowing down comes with age. But with dad, it was less like a freeway slow down; looking back, it seemed more like a sudden stop. Dad was not equipped for life after 75. In his final ten years, he became more difficult to live with; I began to fear that each passing year would erase more and more of the fond memories. It made me think about my future years.

Maybe this is why I could not overlook a recent article in The Atlantic by Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist. It is entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” At the risk of upsetting people (okay, maybe my wife), I found myself thinking, “There are moments I could have written this.” Don’t get me wrong. I love life. I also know some really great people who are living amazing lives in their late 70’s and 80’s. Some  are far more vigorous than others I know who are in their 20’s. Henry Kissinger just published a major work at 91. My mom is 83 and going strong. Our church has a few mighty Calebs who are on to their next mountain. But I think I am with Dr. Emanuel on this point—while death is a loss, living too long can also be a loss.

Here is some of his reasoning: First, he believes that by the time he hits 75, he will have lived a complete life. He will have seen his children reach adulthood, and his life’s projects pretty much completed. Second, while health care extends one’s years, it also extends one’s dying process. Though people live longer, it does not mean they are healthier. Longevity does not necessarily decrease disability.  Third, while there are exceptions, most people’s creativity and originality and productivity fade significantly by 75. Aware of one’s diminishing capacities, people choose more restricted activities. They soon aspire to do less and less. They can find themselves living from the chair.

Emanuel recognizes that there is more to life than careers and productivity. One can use his/her later years investing in the next generation. But he points out the real possibility he will also leave oppressive financial and caregiving burdens to those he invests in. Living long lives can place real emotional weights on the next generation. It can also mess with memories. Instead of being remembered for one’s vigor, the image people will have is one who was stooped and sluggish, forgetful and repetitive. Memories will be framed, not by one’s vivacity, but by one’s frailty.

It’s not that he plans to engage in euthanasia or take his life at 75. He is actively opposed to physician-assisted suicide. But he does plan to gradually approach health care differently. He will not try to prolong his days with protein concoctions and vitamins and medical treatments. No more preventative tests; treatments will be palliative—not curative. Flu shots are out. Colonoscopies will be for others. No screening for prostate cancer; no pace-maker, no stress test, and no heart-valve replacement. He has given a do-not-resuscitate order and an advance directive indicating no ventilators, antibiotics. In sum—there are to be no life-sustaining interventions.

My father’s passing, and this article, have caused me to think more deeply about my approach to aging. Sometimes we can be too pro-life, especially when we refuse to accept death and go to extreme measures  to avoid life on the other side. Ultimately our life span is God’s prerogative; in the meantime, our wisdom is to number our days (Psalm 90:12). If I am to live beyond 75, I hope to be one of those outliers who continues to be productive—continues to serve God and build a kingdom investment. However, if I am not equipped for life beyond 75, I am okay with a divinely directed heart attack on the tennis court at 6-4, 6-5, 40 love. I may still receive a flu shot, but I have already decided there will be no colonoscopies after 65!

In the “Letters to the Editors” department at the Atlantic, the apostle Paul would have probably written these words: “For me to live is Christ—to die is gain.” This is about the best statement anyone has written about approaching tomorrow. While we live, we should go after the abundant life in Christ, but to depart and be with Him is much better. It’s not so much about escaping decline as it is being with Jesus.



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