Friday, November 11, 2011

Life's change agent

As Andy Rooney himself might have put it, why is it that some people manage to grow old before they die, while others die young, through no fault of their own? That just doesn’t seem fair.

Rooney died last week at the age of 92. As a humorist and TV essayist, he was a national treasure. So, in a very different way, was Steve Jobs, who was only 56 when he died a few weeks earlier. Yet no one viewed Rooney’s passing as tragic in the way they did Jobs'. Rooney was well past the average expiration date for white American males: 76 years. Jobs was still what many people considered to be a young man.

But, in fact, he wasn’t. At age 56, Jobs was three-quarters of his way to what the actuarial tables tell us is a full life. He was deep into middle age, as am I at age 58. Rooney was, by his own admission, a senior citizen. And he wasn’t happy about what he knew lay before him.
“I hate it. I mean, I’m gonna die,” Rooney told Morley Safer, when asked about old age in an interview that accompanied his final “60 Minutes” broadcast, “and that doesn’t appeal to me at all.”
It’s not old age that actually kills us, of course. It’s the failure of the heart or liver, or a disease such as cancer, that usually does us in. Age is merely witness to the biological processes driven by genes and our environment. That’s why we can talk about how some people seem so much younger than their years. Most of us have known people, like Rooney, who were still going to work on a regular basis into their 80s or 90s. I visited an elderly couple yesterday that I’ve gotten to know who still live independently and who recall names and the dates of events in their lives with alacrity. I've had less stimulating conversations with my peers, despite the fact that Andy is 93 and Joanna a mere 90. They are among the most chronologically gifted people I know.
I’ve read that the biological limit for human life is about 125 years. That’s the age at which the mechanism that causes cells in the body to reproduce fails (the opposite of cancer!). Long before that, the so-called senescent cells cause great mischief in the tissues they inhabit. Muscle loss, the buildup of arterial plaque, wrinkled skin, cataracts—all seem tied to the accumulation of senescent cells. No matter how carefully we eat or how much we exercise, we can’t stop biological aging. Biologically speaking, we weren’t designed to live forever. The verifiably oldest person in history was a French woman named Jeanne-Louise Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. The total number of centenarians in the world can’t be determined with precision, but the United Nations estimated in 2009 that there were 455,000 people at least 100 years old. It’s an elite club with a very long waiting list.
While the upper limit of longevity appears fixed, life expectancy has marched steadily higher for decades. And with it grows our sometimes unreasonable expectations of a long, healthy life—lasting wellness, as it’s sometimes called. We all want to live and die like Andy Rooney, who recorded his lively “60 Minutes” interview on Oct. 4 before his sudden death a month later. We don’t want to acknowledge the possibility that, instead, we could live a decade or more with a disease like Alzheimer’s, as Ronald Reagan did, or die prematurely of cancer, like Jobs. In this context, “premature” means before some arbitrary, culturally determined age. There’s a sense in which we feel cheated if we don’t live to, say, 80, and get there in reasonably good health.

Unfortunately, life has a ragged edge and very few of us will evade the ravages of serious illness and the creeping debility of old age—assuming we live that long. We persist in our fantasy that all diseases are ultimately curable and that we should be able to live healthfully until our clock runs out. This is the assumption that underlies the cancer research enterprise, which has shown just enough progress over the last half-century to keep the flame burning. Through most of human history, cancer was not a disease from which large numbers of people died; few lived long enough to get it. It is largely a disease of modernity, and of longevity. One of the ironies of surviving cancer is that it increases your odds of suffering degenerative diseases of the brain, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Dying of cancer is no picnic, but there are worse ways to make an exit.
It is not in our nature to accept death, so the enormous concentration of power and resources that pour into efforts to extend longevity will undoubtedly continue. This endeavor is considered a noble quest, as if living long is the most we can expect of life. I’m all for the eradication of diseases that kill the young and the poor disproportionately, as this is what civilized people do. All are created in the image of God and all deserve a chance at life—including the unborn, I might add.
Things get morally problematic, however, when we deny the biological reality of aging and death and allow limited resources to be sucked away from other, competing values—education, public health, environmental protection, to name just three. I agree with Steve Jobs that death is necessary as “life’s change agent,” as he famously stated in his Stanford commencement address. No mortal has escaped it. It is in acknowledging our limitations that we become fully human and learn to focus on matters more important than the number of years we live. Middle age is a good time to get serious about this fact of life. If we’re emotionally and spiritually prepared when the shock of serious illness strikes, we’re more likely to respond in a way that distinguishes us as persons of grace and hope.

1 comment:

Steve said...

The fallout from my 40th HS reunion is that another 7 or 8 classmates have died. I guess we're all in survivor mode from here on out. Good thing that this world, at least for us Christians, isn't as good as it gets.