There is a simple reason why Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s essay on not wanting to live past the age of 75 created a storm of well-justified outrage. He, like millions of other people his age (and younger) have difficulty imagining any future self that is not simply a continuation of his current self. Dr. Emanuel’s current self is a very busy man with lots of responsibility, many deadlines and too little time. The idea of living the way he does now with the additional burdens that he supposes are a inevitable part of aging seems quite unattractive. Because he can not see or feel what it is really like to be an elder, he substitutes our culture’s blatant ageism for foresight and declares— defeat.
The resulting epically tone-deaf essay is compelling evidence that we need to change the way our society thinks about aging. Imagine if Dr. Emanuel lived in a society that envisioned aging as a sophisticated form of human growth, one that takes a lifetime of learning before one can handle it responsibly. What if he had been taught, from a young age, that the later decades of life are meant to be savored for the slower, deeper and more connected ways of living that they make possible?
Not only is there life after 75, there is compelling evidence that some of the sweetest, most poingnant of life’s passages are available only to those who have passed that milestone. The time has come for a new story about life, living and aging and it should help us embrace growth and change from our first breath to our last.
I read with great interest the recent “call-to-arms” by AARP’s new CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins, for a sustained effort to “disrupt” aging (Twitter hashtag #DisruptAging). I’d like to ask the ChangingAging community to join the #DisruptAging campaign by saying NO to Dr. Emanuel’s defeatist, declinist and ageist Atlantic essay.
As you can imagine my inbox has been on fire in response to Dr. Emanuel. To kick off this#DisruptAging conversation, I’ve asked permission to publish one email thread in particular started by my good friend Tim Carpenter, founder of EngAGE. Tell us what you think by posting a comment below. For the social media savvy, Jo Ann Jenkins invites you to tweet your #DisruptAging ideas directly to her at @JoAnn_Jenkins or email Disruptaging@aarp.org. Please include this link back to our thread: http://tinyurl.com/why75
From: Tim Carpenter
Subject: Ezekiel Emanuel’s piece in The Atlantic and Rebuttals
Thought-provoking debate about living longer:
And here are two powerful rebuttals:
Let me know your thoughts…
Host/Producer, Experience Talks Radio Show
2011 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award
From: nancy goodhart
Subject: RE: Ezekiel Emanuel’s piece in The Atlantic and Rebuttals
I didn’t read the rebuttals yet, wanted to think about this without influences.
To be in control of his life – his future – is empowering and important to him right now. It is working for him, as it speaks to a larger issue, larger than himself. And that is good. He is committed – and giving others opportunity to think about a worthy human issue. He’s got our attention.
I would have to question how he can predict how he will feel (genuinely) about anything in the future, including this very specific “done at 75.” Emotions, mindsets, attitudes,…..realities… are not predictabilities within us…. it is one of life’s beautiful mysteries and discoveries. Our changes.
I would like to speak with him as age75 nears. And I would hope he would sincerely speak with himself, and give himself permission to truly “feel.” And not just what would be good for the world, but what would be good for him. Who knows at this point in time how he will really feel about being “done at 75.”
That would be the discussion I would like to read about.
engAGE: The Art of Active Aging
From: Mark Van Noppen
Subject: RE: Ezekiel Emanuel’s piece in The Atlantic and RebuttalsExcellent counter arguments about the quality of life in later years (ie Michelangelo!) aside, there is a sort of deep narcissism and an overbearing intellectual pride about Dr Emanuel’s presentation. It is as if if the only thing that matters in life is the majesty of a person’s own heightened perceptions. He rejects his relationships to others, whole hog. Or maybe he means well but is just so overly intellectual that he is not in touch with an emotional life. If I was friend or family, I’d slap him, ask him to snap out of it! Obviously there is often a lot of great space between age 75 and terrible burden.
From: Gregory Berkoff
Subject: RE: Ezekiel Emanuel’s piece in The Atlantic and Rebuttals
Like Nancy Goodhart, I have not yet read the rebuttals; I wanted to think through the piece for myself.
EE makes some points that are undeniable, chief among them the wrong-minded direction in medicine toward prolonging death rather then enhancing health. So it is ironic that his case for not wanting longevity should rest almost entirely on repeating this same error. He describes with some derision the “American immortal,” who sticks to strict diets, does physical and mental exercises, and makes use of new research on nutritional supplements as obsessively engaged in efforts to cheat death. But many of us who follow a health strategy of this kind do so for a very different reason. My father died at 61 from pancreatic cancer and I live conscious of the fact that the unfolding story written on my DNA may contain a similar sudden catastrophe in an early chapter. My efforts, and those of many of my patients and colleagues, whom EE would label “American immortals,” are directed not necessarily toward a goal of longevity, but of improving the quality my of life, of wellness. A life of feebleness and suffering, of burden to those whom I love would be a tragedy at any age, and should my health deteriorate to such a point I do not think that I would seek interventions to prolong my/others’ suffering. But to live well, in good health, is a gift, and that is also true at any age.
In his article he makes use of disturbing data, familiar to those of us whose professional lives are concerned with healthcare, showing that Americans are becoming more sick over the last several decades. But he accepts this data, inexplicably, as inevitable. Other data–a mountain of it–point to the quite obvious fact that if Americans of all ages are becoming progressively more unhealthy over the last few decades, then the cause for such can not be biological determinism (evolution of a species is not sudden) but rather the result of environmental factors such as diet and lifestyle which are controllable.
Sudden insight of the Nobel Prize-winning variety may be the province of early and middle age, but if I can be certain of anything at 52, it is that wisdom, the GPS ap needed to steer a life into happy territories, is assembled gradually, through education, effort, experience, sometimes therapy. EE’s greatest fear, it would seem, is to live long enough to see one’s brand diminished in the eyes of those who (like himself) regard only the part of life when one is at the peak of one’s creative and intellectual prowess as truly worthwhile. Perhaps an athlete of similarly narrow vision might fear the horror of life beyond 25, when his muscle mass would most certainly be in decline. My fear is to narrow as I age. To harden into something rigid, dogmatic, and cynical. To fail, despite a massive accumulation of knowledge, to accumulate sufficient wisdom to turn the experiences of my life into joy, to be able to love fully and to fully accept love.
As long as the story written on my DNA continues to unfold without catastrophe, I intend to keep my visceral organs unencumbered by inflammation-causing fat; I will joyfully squeeze the muscles of my mind and body often and with pleasure; I will work steadily to increase my understanding of self, as Ken writes, to become more flexible in my thinking, more open to seeing different sides of things. I see in his article that EE is struggling with the fear of tumbling from his intellectual height, and I have compassion for him, as I do for the aging beauty queen whose equally narrow vision informs her that life is no longer worth living past her peak. Gratefully, I have accumulated just enough wisdom to sidestep the pull of such a contracted, soul-crushing philosophy.
From: Robin Hart
Subject: RE: Ezekiel Emanuel’s piece in The Atlantic and RebuttalsA brief response:
EE seems to have no interest in the vast possibilities of accumulating spiritual/emotional wisdom–both things which require time and the experience of gain and, most importantly, loss. He seems to have lost track of the joy of being of benefit to others–something which transcends age (Given his current profession, this is particularly alarming!).
His piece is a well thought out temper tantrum–he’s raging against the dying of the light…
It’s a great suggestion to open up the dialogue.