In my view, there is no such thing as “too old.” But in The Atlantic, Ezekiel Emmanuel famously declared that he wants to die at 75. (He is now 63. The clock is ticking.)
One of Emmanuel’s arguments is that by dying at 75 he would give his children something important. Here is how he put it:
[P]arents…cast a big shadow for most children. Whether estranged, disengaged, or deeply loving, they set expectations, render judgments, impose their opinions, interfere, and are generally a looming presence for even adult children. This can be wonderful. It can be annoying. It can be destructive. But it is inescapable as long as the parent is alive. Examples abound in life and literature: Lear, the quintessential Jewish mother, the Tiger Mom. And while children can never fully escape this weight even after a parent dies, there is much less pressure to conform to parental expectations and demands after they are gone.
As a reason to die by 75, that bold bit of reasoning faces concerns on two fronts: the absence of empirical evidence and the presence of better alternatives.
First the evidence. Why think that the pressure to meet your parents’ expectations diminishes when they die? One friend of mine whose parents have been gone for two decades still thinks about how they would evaluate his career choices. As for me, my own mother passed away several years ago. (I am 47. I try to ignore all ticking clocks.) Although she is absent now, I still picture my mom looking at me in a way that can shift my behaviour and feelings. Of course, she cannot literally interfere in my life. But then again, that ability vanished long before she died. What has remained constant is that her sail of expectation remains tautly unfurled in my consciousness. (Would she, always a critical reader, approve of that last sentence?)
As for the viable alternatives, if we want to relieve our adult children of the burdens that we place upon them, a solution much easier than dying is to find ways to stop being a burden. We can liberate them from our expectations. It might be hard, but we can pull it off. If I ever grow old, I hope to find a role in my daughter’s life that is fitting for someone her age. As long as she doesn’t mind me living in her basement and following her around most of the day.
So inviting death at 75 seems like, well, overkill. But Emmanuel’s broader agenda is on point: we should look for positive value in dying during our seventies and eighties. And he was also right that one such value is that it can help our adult childrenlive better lives.
To see this value, consider our response to Covid-19. It is now commonplace – at least among the healthy and employed – to laud the slower pace of 2020’s Great Coronavirus Shutdown. Apparently people like driving less. They like traveling less. They like consuming less, spending less, scheduling less, doing less. Of course, they also dislike a lot about the shutdown. Social isolation, economic stress, insecurity, and cabin fever take their toll. But the decelerated life has been nice for many of us.
Surprisingly, though, many of those same people seem unable to identify what they were doing before Covid-19 that was so important. Aside from our commute times, what had filled our calendars before shelter-in-place? And more fundamentally: If we prefer the slower life, why don’t we just live slow all of the time?
“Because we have to work,” is an answer that enjoys the case-closed thump of a hard truth. But it is only a partial answer. It explains why work fills people’s lives. It does not explain why we voluntarily filled our lives with extra shopping, travel, entertainment, socialising – or, for that matter, why so many people have filled their lives with more work than they actually need to do.
A more comprehensive explanation is that before Covid-19, living a quieter life seemed kind of boring. It was that simple. We liked our lives busy. The malls are calling, and I must go.
One day, when this pandemic ends, perhaps we won’t go back to all of our old ways. But I suspect that many of us will resume the tradition of filling a good portion of our lives with nonsense. Which raises a deeper question: In normal, less deadly times, why do we mistakenly prioritise the less important over the more important?
Having been forced by the coronavirus shutdown to not only consider but also live the slower life, we finally get it. We now understand in a visceral, not merely abstract, way that a substantial chunk of what we filled our lives with was tailings rather than gold. Thrown into the fast lane since birth, we did not fully grasp how much we were trading away for another trip to the shopping mall.
In short, we have been reminded once again of the old lesson that some knowledge is fully internalised only through experience. When the pandemic shoved us over to the slow lane, we had to confront in a more honest way what activities and which relationships were most important. These days we don’t just know what we judge most valuable; we are now awake to that value. It turns out that we like our more curated lives.
And I think it’s fair to say that many people have made good choices – the painfully obvious exceptions notwithstanding. We avoided commuting. We found new efficiencies. Some people took up jogging. Some made their own masks. We baked bread. Oh, the bread.
Most importantly, we limited social exposure to those closest to us. We recognised that a socially distanced backyard barbeque with the grandparents is more important than going to a live event with thousands of strangers. We renew that recognition every time we stay home and live slow.
We were forced to make these choices, to learn how to ration human interaction in conditions where that most treasured part of our lives became scarce. Opportunities for good things are now rarer and more fleeting, forcing us to confront in a new way the fact that we had better not waste our time on the trivial.
But if this at least partly explains why we had not previously focused on what we most value, how will we respond when the crisis no longer coerces our awareness in this way? We will have the room to be more indiscriminate about who we spend our time with. That freedom, lovely as it is, contains a threat to the good life: Will we still have as keen a perception of our own priorities? Or will we once again succumb to the temptation to spend our time on unnecessary or wasteful activities? Will we remember that the grandparents matter more than the mall? If the pandemic has converted our understanding of how to pursue a good life from the merely intellectual to the felt, the moving, the visceral, how can we hold onto that perspective in normal times?
One answer, I think, can be found in experiencing the death of our older loved ones.
In the wake of my mother’s death, I at first thought I was having some sort of mid-life crisis. I was less tolerant of wasted time. I re-evaluated some of my own life choices. I got rid of my trusty Subaru wagon for a sport sedan.
Okay, that last one really might be me having a mid-life crisis. But as the years passed since my mother’s death, I came to understand that the rest of it is actually parallel to the pandemic’s awakening to value. Once I could take a deep breath amid the mourning and step away from the legion of logistical and legal headaches that go with losing a parent, what gripped me most was a singular thought: My peers and I are going to be the next ones to die. We’re next.
Of course, I didn’t mean that we were going to keel over right then and there. Instead the thought was that we would be the next generation to die after my mother’s generation is gone. And that’s only if things go according to plan.
I was struck by that thought. It was a wake-up call, a newly visceral awareness that opportunity is limited, with the same effect that the pandemic has had. It is no longer merely an abstract, theoretical afterthought that life is short. Instead that knowledge now acts as an omnipresent filter on my deliberations. When this change happens, you figure out which of your cares are most urgent, and those urgent cares rise without delay to the top of your to-do list. You cut to the chase, prioritise what matters, and discard the rest.
At least, that was my experience. But I’m not alone; there are many sad pathways to convert the merely theoretical awareness that you will die one day into an internalised, motivating principle. Those who get terminal diagnoses know it. Mickey Mantle knew it just by virtue of his family history: because his father and uncles died relatively young, he figured he’d better pack a whole life into fifty or so years.
The benefit of staring death in the eye is that you start to treat your cares with the urgency they deserved all along. We know in some sense of ‘knowledge’ that we should carpe our diems wherever we can. What many of us do not get until we intimately confront our own mortality is the toolkit to actually live in a way that comports with that abstract knowledge. As 2020 has made plain, confronting death in our lives helps us not merely know how to live, but actually choose to live in accordance with our priorities.
When my mom died, I stepped into the on-deck circle, watching the Reaper on the mound, hurling fiery thunderbolts. And my game improved as a result. My shift turned out to be not a mid-life crisis but a growth episode: I now extract from life much more value than I did before. My urgent cares get more attention, and to my amazement, that focus on what matters keeps getting sharper. I hope it continues unabated, if I ever grow old.
I don’t want to die, and I think it will be bad for me. With apologies to Emmanuel, it will also be bad for my daughter. (She is nine; the clock is unplugged.) But because I love her, helping my daughter render her cares plain and powerful as she inches toward adulthood is one of the things I most urgently care about. What I have come to appreciate through my reaction to my mom’s death, and what I have been reminded of as we lurch about in this unmoored year, is that one of the tragic tools that helps us live our best lives is to one day know our parents’ death. It has a unique power to snap us out of our routines and our slumbers and instead help us pursue what we most care about.
All of which means that for my daughter, too, there will be no substitute for her one day being forced to have the thought, You’re next.
So how should I feel about aging into my eventual demise? As I approach the half-century mark, the answer clearly is that Elon Musk must find an immortality pill.
Until then, I will have to settle for silver linings of dying in our seventies and eighties. One of those silver linings is that our own deaths help the next generation live better lives. They will get more intimate with their most important cares. And they will pursue what they most value with greater ferocity. There is some solace in that – the last gift my mother gave me, and the last gift I will give Samantha.
I do not welcome the transition into nonexistence. But I do believe that it can help my child be both ruthless in identifying her cares and unyielding in living in accord with them. Aging and dying in the back end of our first century can give our children a healthy urgency before it is too late for them to use it.
If I ever grow old, I hope I can keep that in mind. Just don’t gift wrap me yet, please.