Ezekiel Emanuel: "Why I Hope to Die at 75"

Ross Douthat, in his NYT Sunday Review article last Sunday, an article he titled, The Last Right – Why America Is Moving Slowly on Assisted Suicide, referred to two papers by Ezekiel Emanuel. Emanuel published them both in The Atlantic – The first, Whose Right to Die?, was written in 1997 when the author was 40, and the second with an “in your face” provocative title, Why I Hope To Die at 75, appeared last month when he was 57. To be clear, both articles oppose physician-assisted suicide. The first, Douthat says, is a worthy article on the subject of euthanasia. But it was the second, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” that caught my attention on several fronts.

Today, October 15, 2014, I turn 72, just three years shy of 75. So it seems appropriate to comment on the points Emanuel brings up in “Why I Hope To Die at 75.”

I find that the second article, like the first article (“Whose Right to Die?”), is objective and reasonable, the second article contrasting “living long” with “living well.” He asks, “As life has gotten longer, has it gotten healthier? Is 70 the new 50?”  “No!” is his answer. Then notes that “increases in longevity seem to have been accompanied by increases in disability – not decreases.” These may be physical disabilities but, he notes, even more problematic are emotional and mental disabilities. Strokes used to kill. Today we can survive a stroke but perhaps have to live another 20 years with various levels of paralysis and other mental impairments – speech loss, memory loss, etc.

While this is all true, these are not the points that interested me the most. The most interesting point that Emanuel raises for me is captured in two paragraphs at the end of the article:

“But 75 defines a clear point in time: for me, 2032 [Ezekiel Emanuel is now 57]. It 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.

As most of us learned in college during late-night bull sessions, these questions foster deep anxiety and discomfort. The specificity of 75 means we can no longer just continue to ignore them and maintain our easy, socially acceptable agnosticism. For me, 18 more years with which to wade through these questions is preferable to years of trying to hang on to every additional day and forget the psychic pain they bring up, while enduring the physical pain of an elongated dying process.”

What Emanuel is doing here, it seems to me, is consciously setting the time for entering the “Second Half of Life,” a concept developed by Carl Jung and interestingly developed from a spiritual growth perspective by Richard Rohr in his Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life ©2011. In the First Half of Life we are all about developing our ego, our career, our family, our religious roots, and so on – in short, building our sense of identity in the culture, family, and religion in which we are living. It is a time where creativity and productivity are highly valued. We long for self-actualization, but usually within this cultural framework. Emanuel observes that, although there are notable exceptions, on average we humans peak at 40 in our creativity and productivity, key values to our First Half of Life, and beyond that these values we so treasure begin their slow decline.

We have choices as we go through our declining years. We can live in denial and continue to push hard in our various roles – continuing to find our identity in our accomplishments and doings that we have always done, often leading to frustration for ourselves and for others. Or we can step back, retire and enjoy our “extended vacation,” only to find it not that satisfying. Or we can take up a new career or volunteer role and apply our creativity and productivity, though waning, to contribute in this new profession or organization. Or we can take up patriarchal or matriarchal roles in our families – being the super grandpa or grandma. Or…

Well the “or” that Emanuel hints at is to  “engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children and grandchildren, our community, our fellow Americans, the world.” “As most of us learned in college during late-night bull sessions, these questions foster deep anxiety and discomfort. The specificity of 75 means we can no longer just continue to ignore them and maintain our easy, socially acceptable agnosticism.”

In other words, Emanuel is inviting us to consciously enter the Second Half of Life! Emanuel, writing this article at age 57, suggests that he might use his remaining years (18 years, if he dies when he hopes at 75) to embrace the challenges and growth opportunities that the Second Half of Life offers us. Because the issues we usually face entering the Second Half of Life are quite challenging (since we shall be taking down our hard-fought-for identity formed in the First Half of Life), we may be tempted to “keep up the good fight” of holding onto the identity we formed in the First Half of Life. And the “more successful” we have been in the First Half of Life, the more challenging it may be to “let go” of “who we think we are” and begin the search for who we really are – which is, of course, the purpose and offering of the Second Half of Life.

I notice how this relates to my own journey. I enjoyed a “good enough” career, peaking at age 45 or so, and usefully contributing in some lesser form for another decade, retiring at age 54. I see this opportunity, retiring at 54, as even a greater blessing today looking back on it than I did the day I retired.

Who was I when I retired? I was a reasonably successful businessman, a leader in various non-profit organizations, a committed husband and father, and very active in various roles of leadership in my Lutheran Church – teacher, elder, and various administrative roles.

But in my deepest being I was unsettled, unfulfilled, and in many ways lost. Confused, I did not choose to enter the Second Half of Life but rather embarked upon alternative “First Stage of Life” endeavors. Before embarking on the new, however, I deconstructed what I built. At 57 I left the church where I had been so active. Why? I was in search for a more fulfilling spiritual foundation (While “active” in my church, I was in many core ways an agnostic, as Emanuel says many of us are, consciously or unconsciously). Then, sadly, at age 58 I left my marriage in search of a more fulfilling relationship. At 55 I served as a hospital chaplain intern for 9 months – but hospital chaplaincy wasn’t working for me, so I left it. At 56 I entered massage school and by 58 had cofounded a massage practice with Pat. But again, massage therapist is not who I am, so I left the massage practice and founded Tourmaline Life Center where I could host my sizable library and offer facilities for psychotherapists and various groups (like the Ken Wilber group that I was in for several years). At this time I trained as a Life Coach, but to no avail. And my relationships with women were not working for me either, but I did finally commit myself to be with Pat in 2003 (at age 61). But even here, for the first six or seven years I was disillusioned in this relationship. All of these fresh ideas that I tried were not working for me – and looking back, all of these seem to be my attempts at trying to recreate a new First Half of Life in a new area where I would finally manifest my true identity.

But some new spiritual roots were emerging and strengthening in parallel with these various failed attempts at an alternate “identity.” In my early fifties, while I was still working, I co-created various spiritual support groups – groups of four to eight people committed to spiritual growth. In my mid-fifties I took six or more courses in spirituality at a local Catholic Seminary – courses that really stretched my more rigid and conservative Lutheran roots. In my mid-fifties I engaged two spiritual directors to help me on my path – the first a Catholic nun and the second an ex-priest and married Jungian therapist. At age 56 I began a three year course with Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation – it was called “Soul of the Executive” and was for leaders who were wanting to deepen their spiritual roots. When I was 58 Pat and I took a course in “Spiritual Listening” and from this I was drawn to take a one-week directed retreat with a spiritual director I had come to deeply respect. It was in the summer of 2000, just before I turned 58 and entered my 59th year. I had been retired for 4 years, had left my church a year before, and had left my marriage just a few months before.

The directed retreat changed everything. Here I could finally safely “fall apart” in the presence of my director. Very slowly, I could begin the long path of letting go of my egoic identity. My retreat spiritual director offered me this, “Gary, you are deeply spiritual, but you need an incredible amount of help to embark upon your spiritual journey. The only place I know of to get the level of help you need are with the Thesenga’s who run the Sevenoaks Pathwork Center near Charlottesville, Virginia.”

So in September of 2000 I went to my first Pathwork workshop, nearly 500 miles away in Virginia, and though I was very challenged by and did not at all like or “get” the emotional processing work of this weekend, I spontaneously signed on for the five-year Pathwork Transformation Program. I completed this program and several more years of work in Pathwork training programs at Sevenoaks. I still participate in Pathwork programs each year and continue sessions with my Pathwork helper.

The work of deconstruction and rebuilding using Pathwork tools has been long and challenging – and is still going on after 14 years. It is a never-ending spiral process, revisiting issues at ever-deeper levels. And Pat is very much a part of this process, especially these past two years as together we work with our Pathwork couples counselors Sage and Anthony.

And while seeing things in me at deeper and deeper levels brings deep remorse for what I have done that hurt people due to my unconsciousness, I am most grateful for this unique opportunity for spiritual growth and awakening, a slow unfolding, a purification and transformation process.

So I see that I had a choice at age 50. I could have done many things to keep up what I was doing back then, inwardly knowing this was not following my Call, or I could even have retired and “enjoyed life.” But I am so glad that I chose otherwise. Yes, there were many false starts in many areas, but underneath spiritual roots were forming and growing at the same time. Now in Pathwork I have taken the spiritual path I have chosen, although it has been quite painful at times for so many closest to me, as well as painful for myself. This is what it has meant to me, using Emanuel’s words, to “engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what I want to leave my children and grandchildren, my community, my fellow Americans, and the world.”

I appreciate Ezekiel Emanuel’s article that has helped me to put my life in perspective. He himself perhaps will begin now, at age 57, what I really began as early as age 50. Yes, I have been blessed and am grateful to all involved, especially those who have borne the pain of some of my decisions, conscious and unconscious. And I see how well Pathwork has served me as a toolbox for my transition into and through the Second Half of Life.

There is another point that Emanuel makes, and that has to do with passing on the mantle of patriarchy to the next generation. His point is that we as parents have a shadow side. Yes, our kids love us, but the shadow side is how we have formed their values and blocked them from their own lives, from their own individuation.

I see my own situation as being the exception in this regard. My parents were not around in my adult years. I was thirty when my parents were killed in an auto accident. This felt so tragic at the time. I did not get to know them as adults, I did not get a chance to really appreciate all they were, their struggles, their values. I miss this! Yet on the other hand I was set free in a way at age 30. Yes, their values, and those of the church, were deeply etched into my cells and would be there for all time. But without their physical presence I was free to explore my own values in a way that would not have been true had they lived to be 75 rather than 56, the age they were when they were killed. So I have had quite a long time to be with myself and work out my life journey – facing the deep existential questions on my own. I doubt that had my parents lived, and I certainly wished that they had, that I would have had the courage to leave my marriage, my career, and my church. Perhaps I would have, but I really question whether I would have or not. AND this leaving may not have been necessary, but at my earlier level of consciousness leaving what was behind me was all that I could see at the time — the longing of my soul was strongly pulling me forward.

But now it is my turn to let go of the Patriarchy of the Vollbracht clan. At my son’s wedding in June I felt, for the first time, my role as patriarch of the Vollbracht family as I toasted his and Elizabeth’s life together. The feeling of patriarch was palpable. What Emanuel points out, however, is that now it is truly important to pass this patriarchy on to the next generation at an age when they can live into the responsibilities and blessings of that role. I am not thinking I need to “die” for this to happen, however. Rather it is something like passing on a blessing to my son and two daughters. This was a practice in the Old Testament – for example, Jacob blessing his children upon his deathbed, etc. So this passing on the patriarchy, too, is something of which I want to be conscious in my remaining years.  

These are just a few things that Emanuel’s article raises for me, and I am pleased for his courage in writing it.

Shared in love, Gary