I recently read an recent article by Ezekiel Emmanuel, Why I Hope to Die At 75. In the article, Emmanuel muses on the subject of aging and death.
“Doubtless, death is a loss,” he writes. “It deprives us of all the things we value. But…living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining…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.”
Because of the inevitability and awfulness of it all, Ezekiel goes on to declare that he will refuse all medical treatment from the age of 75 on, and bravely accept death when it comes.
On the surface, his words have an air of tragic nobility about them. And he taps into emotions most feel if they bring themselves to muse on their mortality. No one welcomes the ravages that come with aging. It stunk when I could no longer reach the fence as a hitter in softball. (What about the day when I can’t get it out of the infield?)
But the value-system that lies hidden beneath Emmanuel’s words – like the engine that drives the car – is what we ought to focus on. Because it is chilling to the core. If I had Down’s syndrome or were in a hospital bed with a faulty heart, I would tremble to read them. And this value system could not be any more opposed to the value-system of one who follows Christ.
Undergirding Emmanuel’s logic include these values:
- Weakness, sickness and frailty decrease my value as a human being.
- There is little I gain by aging. It is largely all downhill.
- If I can no longer contribute meaningfully to society then I become a dead-weight to society.
- What I may have done in the past that had merit means nothing in the present.
- Honoring the elderly is a pointless practice.
- I can do with my life what I wish.
- Death is certain and absolute.
Not to get too technical here, but one’s core values flow out of one’s worldview – which is the overarching way in which a person comprehends all of life. Emmanuel’s value system makes sense when you connect it to his worldview which is materialistic (what you see is what you get – no God required), individualistic (I am free to determine my own worth), relativistic (my reality may differ from yours) and temporal (death ends my existence.)
Against this worldview stands the biblical, which is theistic (God exists and he determines my worth), communal (I am my brother’s keeper and he is mine), absolute (very real boundaries hem in my reality), and eternal (my existence outlasts death).
Consider then the values with which a follower of Christ looks upon aging and death.
- I have worth because God willed me into existence. I am his ‘image-bearer’.
- My health, age, condition, viability, or usefulness does not diminish my worth.
- While aging brings a lamentable loss of physical capacity, it also brings emotional, relational, and intellectual growth.
- An elderly member of society is deserving of full honor, protection and care – for the inherent worth they possess as God’s image-bearer, and for their sacrifices and contributions to society when they were young.
- God has the authority to give life and take it.
- Death – while a bitter enemy – is a defeated, defanged foe. Death is a doorway into eternity.
Does any of this matter? Well, Ideas of today become the practices of tomorrow. Emmanuel might be a nice man from a nice family just writing what he feels. But the next guy reading him finds himself repeatedly despising the elderly folks who slow down his life. And the next guy stops visiting his aging mother. And the next guy looks in the mirror and sinks into an endless depression. And the guy after him is asking the doctor for instructions on how to turn the machine on. And the next guy is the doctor turning on the machine without any permission whatsoever.