Today when I read Ezekiel J. Emanuel’s article in the October edition of “The Atlantic” titled, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” I knew there were others thinking along the same lines I do.
For years I’ve said, “You’ve got to die of something.” While Dr. Emanuel’s line of thought resonates with mine in part, we end up taking very separate tracks.
First, let me be clear that “you’ve got to die of something” is a position I’ve come to for myself alone. I feel no need to convince anyone else that they should adopt it. Like Dr. Emanuel, I would like to suggest, however, that how we in this country consider our own deaths and the lives we lead approaching them is a conversation worth having. It is also a conversation most of us avoid. (This, by the way, is an entirely different conversation than the emotionally charged one about assisted suicide – a conversation that is also worth having it seems to me. But please read on.)
“American immortal” is the term Emanuel uses to describe the American obsession with doing everything medically available, “all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.” He is, it seems to me, right in saying we believe the fantasy that we can push back the dates of our deaths and then die abruptly suffering few, if any, of the problems associated with growing old. Those will happen to others, not us.
Dr. Emanuel’s article methodically addresses the suppositions that support this fantasy. They are interesting and pertinent, but my engagement with this topic takes a more theological tack. As a person of faith I believe in a God who is about the business of creating. This glorious cosmos of which we get to be a part is the unfinished business of that God. From the Jewish story of creation which Jesus would have taken as foundational, I’ve learned that “It is good.” From science I’ve learned that this good creation is finely tuned and intricately interwoven. Taken together scripture and science tell me that even those aspects and parts of creation that are distasteful to me have a place in this good system we call Creation including ticks, earthquakes, and bacteria that can give me the stomach flu. With you and me, they all belong, along with death.
Many, if not most of us have come to accept that in the face of a terminal diagnosis offering only palliative care is a reasonable option, acceptable within the Christian world view. What I would like to suggest is that with the development of technology and the pharmaceutical industry, humanity has crossed a line. What was once innovative and considered extraordinary treatment has now become the expected, if not mandated, standard of care. I wonder if we are not overriding the finely tuned balance of which we were created to be a part. We are in fact taking the place of God.
In our culture we are individuals first and foremost. We have lost our sense of being a part (a wonderful part, but simply a part) of Creation. We’ve come to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of God’s work, worthy of being saved whatever the cost, even if that contributes to the disruption of the harmony in this finely tuned system.
So for me, letting God’s good Nature take its course is the principle I hope to live by, and die by. I do not want to contribute to the problems that come from our constant war against death. I know my choice will not change anything except for me and those who care about me. I could narrow the focus of my concern and decide how to live these last years of life based on what I fantasize will be best for me. I also know that to live my life with integrity, I must trust that with God there is a season to everything, including my natural life. And as a person who has lived a full life, Death will come not as a stranger, but as a friend.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.