Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and former Special Advisor for Health Policy to Peter Orszag, has an Atlantic article titled, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” and subtitled, “An argument that society and families — and you — will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly.” There’s much I strongly disagree with there — I want those I love to live far beyond 75, and I would like to do the same myself — and in particular this passage (quoted by Glenn Reynolds (InstaPundit)) strikes me as reflecting rather excessive vanity:
Doubtless, death is a loss…. [But] living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
At the same time, it is understandable vanity, I think, and one that points to a serious tragedy of life (even if I would draw a different lesson from that tragedy than Ezekiel would) — not just the fear that we will decline into truly awful illness, but that we will become pale copies of our former selves. And it put me in mind of one of Kipling’s poems, The Old Men:
This is our lot if we live so long and labour unto the end —
Then we outlive the impatient years and the much too patient friend:
And because we know we have breath in our mouth and think we have thought in our head,
We shall assume that we are alive, whereas we are really dead.
We shall not acknowledge that old stars fade or stronger planets arise
(That the sere bush buds or the desert blooms or the ancient well-head dries),
Or any new compass wherewith new men adventure ‘neath new skies.
We shall lift up the ropes that constrained our youth, to bind on our children’s hands;
We shall call to the waters below the bridges to return and to replenish our lands;
We shall harness (Death’s own pale horses) and scholarly plough the sands.
We shall lie down in the eye of the sun for lack of a light on our way —
We shall rise up when the day is done and chirrup, “Behold, it is day!”
We shall abide till the battle is won ere we amble into the fray.
We shall peck out and discuss and dissect, and evert and extrude to our mind,
The flaccid tissues of long-dead issues offensive to God and mankind —
(Precisely like vultures over an ox that the army left behind).
We shall make walk preposterous ghosts of the glories we once created —
Immodestly smearing from muddled palettes amazing pigments mismated —
And our friend will weep when we ask them with boasts if our natural force be abated.
The Lamp of our Youth will be utterly out, but we shall subsist on the smell of it;
And whatever we do, we shall fold our hands and suck our gums and think well of it.
Yes, we shall be perfectly pleased with our work, and that is the Perfectest Hell of it!
This is our lot if we live so long and listen to those who love us —
That we are shunned by the people about and shamed by the Powers above us.
Wherefore be free of your harness betimes; but, being free be assured,
That he who hath not endured to the death, from his birth he hath never endured!
This seems like Kipling in an unduly grim mood, and I don’t really buy the message, at least if taken at face value. Still, I think it’s a great poem.