But first, get psyched for Wednesday:
I went to grad school and shared some classes with Zeke Emanuel, who just wrote a great piece for The Atlantic on why he doesn’t want to live much past the age of 75. Money quote:
By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations.
Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die. And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want—that is not my business.
I also happened to catch this little piece on Leonard Cohen’s decision to take up smoking again now that he is 80 years old:
At any age, taking up smoking is not sensible. Both the smoker and those who breathe his secondhand smoke can suffer not only long-term but acute health problems, including infections and asthma. And yet, Mr. Cohen’s plan presents a provocative question: When should we set aside a life lived for the future and, instead, embrace the pleasures of the present?
It’s a vital question this one – and not because of the extraordinary costs of maximal healthcare at the end of many of our lives. It’s vital because it challenges our Western denial of death, our cult of life-extension, our refusal to fully absorb the fact that we are finite, mortal, obsolescent. I was horribly lucky to be forced to confront this at a very early age – 29 to be exact. The prognosis back in 1993 was not great for HIV infection, and I watched a close friend die at the age of 31. Is my life somehow worth more than his, I wondered, simply because I’m going to be here longer? Some called this survivor’s guilt. I thought it was merely addressing a core existential question.
One day, a simple thought occurred to me and a huge amount of stress and worry and anxiety lifted. It occurred to me to see life the way we see college. No one gets extra points for staying in college for longer than four years. We understand that it’s finite; and our response is to value the content of that experience rather than its length. I vowed that that was how I was going to treat life from now on. And, although, of course, those feelings waned as my prospects brightened, I haven’t ever fully let go of it.
It lies behind many of the things I did with my life since then – the apparently quixotic fight for marriage equality (the kind of nutty thing you throw yourself into if you only have a few years left); even more quixotic attempts to re-describe conservatism; the crazy idea that I could write directly for readers with no middle man; the equally risky prospect of making an independent business out of a very idiosyncratic blog. I think knowing I was living past my expiration date helped me live more fully and less fearfully. And it makes the idea of trying to live into one’s eighties as a goal a little beside the point.
There’s wisdom in Zeke’s outlook; and, of course, wit in Cohen’s. I think of Hitch. Maybe he could have lived a different, more upright life – which would have been much longer. But would he still have been Hitch? And isn’t it better to have one real Hitch for a short time than a less authentic version that lived into his dotage?
I know this much: I just want to be alive when I die.
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