Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Living a Life of Meaning, Not Just Years

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Living a Life of Meaning, Not Just Years

Article excerpt

Few essays on aging have gotten as much attention -- pro and con, but mostly con -- as "Why I Hope to Die at 75," in The Atlantic's October issue.

"I certainly didn't pick that title," Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel said Friday, in his first press conference call since the article he wrote stirred up a polite ruckus. In a forum organized by the USC Annenberg/California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, Emanuel essentially tried to explain what his writing meant -- instead of what a lot of readers concluded from the headline.

"At 75 and beyond," he wrote in the magazine, "I will need a good reason to even visit the doctor and take any medical test or treatment, no matter how routine and painless. And that good reason is not 'It will prolong your life.' ... I will accept only palliative -- not curative -- treatments if I am suffering pain or other disability."

Such an austere approach might be off-putting. But it can also be bracing.

Because the author is the brother of President Obama's former chief of staff and was involved in startup discussions on the Affordable Care Act, a lot of the response to his provocative argument has been political. Critics were quick to see an agenda for health care rationing.

But Emanuel is also a cancer specialist and bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, who often advises elders on how to prolong life when that is their choice. And if you read beyond this article's attention-grabbing headline, you will find a deeply felt Socratic monologue on what a human life is worth -- and how a dependent, medicalized existence can erode that value.

Emanuel wrote about the universal human desire to create a legacy. Placing an arbitrary deadline on one's lifespan, he said, "removes the fuzziness of trying to live as long as possible. Its specificity forces us to think about the end of our lives and engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children and grandchildren, our community, our fellow Americans, the world. The deadline also forces each of us to ask whether our consumption is worth our contribution."

On Friday, he emphasized his preference for quality over quantity of life -- and also, more intriguingly, for fulfillment over personal satisfaction. …

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