A meaningful life

The MIT Technology Review recently published an interview with Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s department of medical ethics and health policy, entitled “A doctor and medical ethicist argues life after 75 is not worth living.”  It appears to be a follow-up to a provocative article that Emanuel wrote in The Atlantic five years ago, “Why I Hope to Die at 75” (Emanuel makes clear in the interview that he did not choose that title.)

After stating that he is not advocating euthanasia, Emanuel makes some thought-provoking points in the interview.  For example, he observes that we don’t spend enough money on children: “one of the statistics I like to point out is if you look at the federal budget, $7 goes to people over 65 for every dollar for people under 18.”  To truly affect impactful change, it seems wise to focus on the health of children.

Emanuel also challenges the idea that a longer life span means a healthier life: “We’re having more disabilities.  We have people with more problems.  And even more important, for most people, is the biological decline in cognitive function.” For Emanuel, cognitive decline calls into question any advances made in average life span.  Apparently, 70 is not the new 50.

When asked about the ‘iconic innovators in Silicon Valley—people like Peter Thiel and Larry Ellison,’ Emanuel does not pull his punches: “. . . [T]hey’re fascinated with life extension [in general]? Naw, they’re fascinated by their life extension. They find it hard to even contemplate the idea that they are going to die and the world is going to be fine without them.”  Though somewhat pointed, Emanuel’s comments underscore some of the issues with individuals pursuing ‘immortality.’  Is it really for the betterment of society or an unhealthy preoccupation with self? 

To me, Emanuel’s most troubling remarks come when he addresses the issue of people who are active well into their 80s: “…when I look at what those people ‘do’, almost all of it is what I classify as play.  It’s not meaningful work.  They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking.  Which can all have value—don’t get me wrong.  But if it’s the main thing in your life?  Ummm, that’s probably not a meaningful life.”

Emanuel’s wish to die in his mid-70s reflects his interpretation of what a meaningful life is.  For him, meaning consists in doing research, publishing findings, and contributing to the academic community and by extension, the public life.  Even the thought of mentoring young people, though important, doesn’t appear to hold Emanuel’s interest for long.  

What constitutes a meaningful life?  While meaning is a very personal question, I would like to affirm the important role that the elderly play in our community.  Perhaps their ‘productivity’ is not the same as it used to be, and their health is in decline, but those are not adequate measures of meaning.  It seems to me that those who are well along life’s journey have much to share with their children and friends about living. There is meaning beyond this, of course, but at the very least it is a move away from the “be productive or die” perspective.

My hope is that society’s definition of meaning will eventually expand and more fully include people of all ages.

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