As I write these words, it is exactly one week before my seventieth birthday—“the days of our years,” according to the Psalmist; the day “the warranty runs out,” according to a friend of mine.
Today is also the twenty-fourth anniversary of my father's death, four months and ten days after his seventieth birthday.
And today is the day which the Church celebrates as the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord—the occasion on which, according to St. Luke, the old man Simeon spoke the prayer which is incorporated into the liturgy as the Nunc Dimittis (“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace”).
Someone was saying this morning on the Today show that the health industry has become the biggest single industry in the United States. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the statement, but if it is true, more's the pity. For there is considerable evidence that a very large part of what the industry does is not so much maintaining life as postponing death. And the two are not synonymous.
We look back upon the meditations and prayers of medieval man and begin to wonder whether his preoccupation with death was not a kind of indulgence. But if he could live among us for a week— reading the newspapers, watching television, perhaps visiting a nursing home—he might begin to wonder whether our preoccupation with health and long life is not just as much an indulgence. It may have been, by our standards of judgment, a waste of precious time to dream of “Jerusalem, the Golden.” But for the vast majority of us it is just as much a waste of time to dream of Golden Years of Retirement when the stern discipline of our low-sodium, low-cholesterol, low-fat diets will pay off in svelte, sexy bodies ready for all kinds of fun!
The fact is that there is such a thing as the aging process. Left to run its course, it will remove us from the scene, maybe a little bit earlier than we would prefer, but often quite gently and with some respect for our dignity. Pneumonia, for instance, used to be called “the old folks' friend” because it gave them an easy, fairly swift death. Now, if you come down with pneumonia, the doctor gives you a prescription for an antibiotic and your wife expects you to help with the housecleaning. And you live to stare with sightless eyes out of the window of some nursing home where you are addressed by your first name and periodically fed spoonfuls of lamb paste and pureed carrots.
The whole health industry is determined that we old folks are going to live on and on, even if it kills us.
But does the name of Richard D. Lamm ring any bells in your memory?
He was the governor of Colorado who looked at the way we human beings are multiplying like gerbils and concluded that this couldn't go on very much longer. Somebody, he thought, had to die. And it seemed to him that the fairest thing was for those who had lived the longest to get out of the way so that the more recent arrivals could have their turn in the sun. So he proposed that we not strive so officiously to keep alive those whose survival depended on expensive interventions in the aging process. The media picked up his remarks and boiled them down to just four words which, for a while, stirred up a nation-wide debate: “The Duty to Die.”
I don't want to resurrect that debate. Nor do I want to associate myself in any way with individuals or organizations which seek support for the legalized killing of the elderly, whether by euthanasia or suicide assistance. The body has its own wisdom. It will die when it is time for it to do so, if only it is allowed to do so.
The saddest thing about our health-care system as we have it now is that we are committing enormous human and financial resources to postponing death when those same resources might be much better spent on maintaining life, especially in the very young and in the generation that is still responsible for their care.
It is a national disgrace that the infant mortality rate in the poorer sections of our major cities is as high as the less-advanced Third World countries.
It is unacceptable that the United States should be the only industrialized country other than South Africa that does not ensure its citizens the right to adequate health care.
It is cruel to allocate health-care resources in such a way that the young and those in mid-life, who still have so much to live for and so much to contribute, must through their tax dollars be forced to pay for sophisticated equipment to prolong lives which long for nothing so much as to return to their Giver.
And it is fraudulent to put people through painful operations, loathsome diets, boring physical exercises, and various other gratuitous forms of pain and self-denial on the grounds that they will pay off when one attains Senior Citizen status. The fact is that they may or may not.
For myself, as I approach seventy, my hope is that when it becomes apparent that the old man is not going to make it my children will engage an elderly practical nurse, good-humored and soft-spoken but a bit wooly-beaded and forgetful. In her care I could hope that the bed linen would be clean and the pillow frequently fluffed up. And I could also hope that she would find it hard to remember what pills I am supposed to take when.
Fortunately, my doctor is close enough to me in age that he knows that there is not necessarily a cure for everything that ails the human body, and therefore knows when to leave a patient alone—no tubes, no desperate surgery, no heroic measures.
And if my pastor then is as good as the ones I have now, he will know that one never awakens a Christian man from a good sleep, even for his prayers.
So—forward to the seventies!
John Strietelmeier, before his retirement, served Valparaiso University as Professor of Geography, Editor of The Cresset, and Vice President for Academic Affairs.