Current Affairs - April 26, 2020

What do ducks do all day? I have been watching some recently, and the answer is: not much. They float around. They eat. They quack. They poop. They waddle from pond to tree and back again. Sometimes they reproduce using their weird corkscrew genitalia. But they do very little work. Other animals are much the same. I watched some turtles the other day, sitting beside a lake. They basked in the sunshine. Then they went in the water for a bit. Then they came out again. This seemed to be their entire life.

I am not saying animals do no labor. Oftentimes, the struggle to survive is intense, and many are constantly exerting themselves. But once they’re fed and rested, a lot of what they do consists of standing around. Or sitting. Or wandering this way and that. Cats, as we know, mostly just sleep, and when you think about it, it’s rather incredible that millions of years of evolution have produced a creature whose main purpose is just to lie in one spot unconscious. 

Animals do not seek meaning, as far as we can tell. The very concept of a meaningful life is incomprehensible to them. There is just life, and life consists of the things that need to be done and then things they just seem to like doing. But one animal is quite different: us. The human. Many humans have a very strange idea that life should consist of more than just quacking and floating. It should be “meaningful,” whatever that is.

Consider the troublesome case of Ezekiel J. Emanuel, brother to Rahm and health policy adviser to Joe Biden. Emanuel once wrote an essay called “Why I Hope To Die At 75.” In it, he argued that after 75, life becomes less and less worth living. He documents all the ways in which life as an elderly person can be unpleasant due to physical and mental decline. He is dismissive toward efforts at life extension (which I favor). He decides that given how much being old tends to suck, 75 should be “enough” years for anyone. 

The conclusion of the essay makes very little sense to me. I do not know why anyone would choose the number 75 solely because it is a population-level average of when life begins to get worse, instead of saying that each person should want to live as long as their own personal quality of life is good. (Actually, I know exactly why. Because saying “you should want to live as long as your life is good” is banal and won’t get you into the Atlantic whereas irrational contrarianism will.) But what interests me most about Emanuel’s take is that a central part of his case against life after 75 is that old people are not as “creative” or “productive.” Listen to him: 

It is not just mental slowing. We literally lose our creativity. About a decade ago, I began working with a prominent health economist who was about to turn 80. Our collaboration was incredibly productive. We published numerous papers that influenced the evolving debates around health-care reform. My colleague is brilliant and continues to be a major contributor, and he celebrated his 90th birthday this year. But he is an outlier—a very rare individual… American immortals operate on the assumption that they will be precisely such outliers. But the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us… we choose ever more restricted activities and projects, to ensure we can fulfill them. Indeed, this constriction happens almost imperceptibly. Over time, and without our conscious choice, we transform our lives. We don’t notice that we are aspiring to and doing less and less. And so we remain content, but the canvas is now tiny. The American immortal, once a vital figure in his or her profession and community, is happy to cultivate avocational interests, to take up bird watching, bicycle riding, pottery, and the like. And then, as walking becomes harder and the pain of arthritis limits the fingers’ mobility, life comes to center around sitting in the den reading or listening to books on tape and doing crossword puzzles. And then … Living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. 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.

Emanuel also included the following chart to illustrate that creative people’s “contributions” decline over time: ...
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