Contemplations of Life and Death  

My contemplations of mortality and those of Roger Cohen have been subjects of previous posts.[1] Additional contemplations are prompted by an article by two philosophy professors, John Kaag and Clancy Martin.[2]

Their starting point is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, “Ozymandias,” in which an anonymous traveler discovers a bust and pedestal, half-buried in windswept sands, with the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

This poem, they say, delivers a perennial message: “All of this will be over soon, faster than you think. Fame has a shadow — inevitable decline.” Our existential fragility “is overlooked in most of our waking hours” and “must be faced even by the greatest among us.”

We, however, “tend to defer the question of living or dying well until it’s too late to answer. This might be the scariest thing about death: coming to die only to discover, in Thoreau’s words, that we haven’t lived.” We “pretend that dying is something that is going to happen in some distant future, at some other point in time, to some other person. But not to us. At least not right now. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not even next decade. A lifetime from now.”

“As surely as time passes, [however,] we human beings are dying for something. The trick to dying for something is picking the right something, day after week after precious year. And this is incredibly hard and decidedly not inevitable.” But “we have a remarkable degree of choice about what to do, think and become in the meantime, about how we go about living, which means we have a remarkable degree of choice over how we go about our dying. The choice, like the end itself, is ultimately ours and ours alone.”

If we succeed in liberating ourselves from the delusion of immortality, “we may find that confronting the fact of our own impermanence can do something unexpected and remarkable — transform the very nature of how we live.”

All of this makes sense to me, but this article does not provide guidance on how one should decide what to do “day after week after precious year.” For me, this triggers the Christian notion of vocation and the words of Frederick Buechner, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said “the word ‘vocation’ . . . means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[3]

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[1] Previous posts: Intimations of Mortality (Mar. 8, 2012); Mortality (Apr. 8, 2014); Death Certificates’ Documentation of Mortality (Apr. 11, 2014); Why I Do Not Hope To Die at 75 (Sept. 25, 2014); Further Reflections on Ezekiel Emmanuel’s Desire to Die at 75 (Sept. 30, 2014); Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Roger Cohen’s Gentle Words of Wisdom (Dec. 3, 2016).

[2] Kaag & Martin, Looking Death in the Face, N.Y. Times (Dec. 26, 2016),

[3] My General Thoughts About Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014); Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings? (Dec. 7, 2016).

Why I Do Not Hope To Die at 75

Under the provocative title, “Why I Hope To Die at 75,” the 57-year-old Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and head of the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, sets forth in The Atlantic Magazine what he claims to be his firm conclusion that he hopes to die in 18 years at age 75.

As a 75 year-old-man who was graduated from high school in 1957, the year Emanuel was born, I do not hope to die in the remaining months before I turn 76 or at any other set time.

Let us explore the reasons for these different conclusions.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s Reasons

According to Dr. Emmanuel, “[L]iving too long is . . . 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.” He then backs up this opinion with what he asserts as facts:

  • “We [in the U.S.] are growing old [in terms of increased life expectancy], and our older years are not of high quality.” Studies show, he says, that “increases in longevity seem to have been accompanied by increases in disability.” Another study found an “increase in the absolute number of years lost to disability [including mental disabilities like depression and dementia] as life expectancy rises.”[1]
  • Another medical researcher said, “health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process.”
  • “[O]ur mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older: mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, problem-solving and creativity.”
  • The “most dreadful of all possibilities: living with dementia and other acquired mental disabilities” while our society is expected to experience a “tsunami of dementia.”
  • As we age, we “accommodate our physical and mental limitations. Our expectations shrink. . . . [W]e choose ever more restricted activities and projects, to ensure we can fulfill them.”

He recognizes that “there is more to life than youthful passions focused on career and creating. There is [mentoring and] posterity: children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

But these benefits of aging are outweighed for him by “the very real and oppressive financial and caregiving burdens” often imposed on other family members and by the psychological burdens on children unable to escape from the shadows of living parents.

Although Emanuel does not embrace euthanasia or suicide for himself, he has executed “a do-not-resuscitate order and a complete advance directive indicating no ventilators, dialysis, surgery, antibiotics, or any other medication. . . . In short, no life-sustaining interventions.” In addition, if and when he reaches age 75, he will seek to avoid any visit to a doctor and any regular preventive tests, screenings, or interventions. He says he “will accept only palliative—not curative—treatments if he is suffering pain or other disability.”

A desire to die at age 75, he says, “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, our world.”

He concludes with this caveat. “I retain the right to change my mind and offer a vigorous defense of living as long as possible. That, after all, would mean still being creative after 75.”

Responses to Emmanuel’s Reasons

I agree with Emmanuel that as we age we lose some of our physical and mental abilities and that executing a complete advance medical directive forbidding extreme life-sustaining interventions, as he and I have done, is a reasonable thing to do.

Otherwise I vigorously disagree with Emmanuel’s conclusion that a desire to die at age 75 is a reasonable conclusion and reject his argument that what others think of us or how they may remember us after we are gone is relevant to this issue. Apparently creativity is a central virtue for him, and its predictable decline as we age appear to be the major motivation for his stated desire to die at 75. Yes, creativity is important for many of us, but it is not the only virtue.

I also wonder why he does not contemplate retirement from actively working for a living as another stage of life with certain benefits. Nor does he really grapple with the facts, he briefly concedes, that many older people are happy with new interests like “bird watching, bicycle riding, pottery, and the like” and that “there is more to life than youthful passions focused on career and creating. There is posterity: children, grand children and great-grandchildren.” He also glosses over the fact that his own father (Dr. Benjamin M. Emmanuel), now about 87 years old, had a heart attack 10 years ago and since then has slowed down appreciably, but still says he is happy.

My Reasons for Not Wanting To Die at 75

At age 62 with some trepidation, I retired from the active practice of law. I wanted to escape the pressure of being a litigator who oftentimes was forced to be in professional relationships with opposing counsel who were disagreeable people. This produced stress that I wanted to eliminate as life-threatening. I also wanted to create time to do other things beside working while I was still in good health: travel, spend time with my grandchildren, learn new things and write. After my first 10 years of retirement I assessed my retirement and concluded that these years had been productive and enjoyable. That confirmed for me the wisdom of retiring when I did. These conclusions have been reconfirmed by my subsequent three additional years of retirement.

In this period I became actively involved in my church’s global partnerships and made three mission trips to Cuba and one to Cameroon and in the process made new international friends and learned a lot about the two countries. My involvement with Cuba prompted me to become an advocate for changing U.S. policies regarding the island. I could not have done this while still practicing law.

I also have reflected on my own life and affirmatively set about determining the many people and activities for which I was grateful. Yes, this could have been done while still working, but the pressures of working, I believe, would have meant postponing such reflections to another day that would never have come. This process of reflection, aided by worship at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, has also enabled me to see certain of my activities as vocations in the Christian sense.

One of my activities in this first phase of retirement was being a part-time Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School to co-teach international human rights law. In the process I learned a lot about this field of law and enjoyed interacting with law professors and students. I could not have done this while still practicing law.

At the end of 2010 I retired from law teaching in order to create time for sharing things I already had written and for research and writing on new topics that came along. In the spring of 2011 this desire lead to my creating and writing this blog. It is exciting to come across new things, like Emmanuel’s article that prompted this post. I frequently find that such things immediately start my composing an article in my head. Often this triggers a desire to do research, frequently using “Google” searches, but sometimes going to a library or sources of original documents. I enjoy this kind of puzzle and challenge as well as the writing.

In my retirement I also have thought about mortality, especially as friends, acquaintances and others my age die. But such thoughts are not depressing, but rather reminders that I too am mortal. Therefore, try to make the most of each day you have.

I do not worry about when I will die or wish that I will die at a particular age. Nor do I worry about what happens to me after death even though Christianity has a promise of eternal life.

Be happy! Enjoy life! Love one another!

This point was raised in an article entitled “Too Young to Die, Too Old to Worry” by Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine, just after the publication of the Emmanuel essay, but without citation to same. Karlawish said, “Age seems to be a blunt criterion to decide when to stop” and “we desire not simply to pursue life, but happiness, and . . . medicine is important, but it’s not the only means to this happiness.”

Here are some of my blog posts that relate to the previous statement of reasons why I do not desire to die at 75.

Post # Date Title
19 04/22/11 Retiring from Lawyering
21 04/23/11 My First Ten Years of Retirement
226 03/15/12 Gratitude I
242 04/11/12 Gratitude II
243 04/13/12 Gratitude III
276 06/13/12 Gratitude Revisited
221 03/08/12 Intimations of Mortality
489 04/08/14 Mortality
492 04/11/14 Death Certificates’ Documentation of Mortality
466 02/06/14 My General Thoughts on Vocation
475 02/23/14 My Vocations

[1] Emmanuel makes no reference to the immediately preceding article in the magazine by Greg Easterbrook, What Happens When We All Live to 100?, The Atlantic at 61 (Oct. 2014) that discusses research into further increases in vibrant life span.

The Extraordinary “Ordinary Grace”

ordinary-grace-200

The 53-year old Frank Drum in the novel, “Ordinary Grace,”  begins his narration by saying that in 1961, when he was 13  years old, the deaths of his sister and four others in his small  southern Minnesota town were not completely tragic. These  deaths also brought him wisdom by “the awful grace” of God  in accordance with a quotation from Aeschylus, a Greek  playwright, that suffering and pain, “against our will, [bring  us] . . . wisdom through the awful grace of God.” [1]

The reader thus immediately is faced with two terms: “ordinary grace” and “awful grace.” Do they mean the same? Or are they different concepts? And are they different from “divine grace”? The novel does not answer these questions.

Towards the end of the novel after many horrible deaths, Frank’s father, Rev. Nathan Drum, a Methodist minister, repeats the Aeschylus quotation. Frank responds with this pithy, skeptical question, “Awful?” Rev. Drum merely responds, “I don’t think it is meant in a bad way. I think it means beyond our understanding.” (P. 289.) That was the only other reference to “awful grace” I found in the novel.

Similarly the only time I found the term “ordinary grace” used was in Frank Drum’s description of a lunch at the church pastored by his father. The lunch was just after the funeral service for Ariel Drum, the pastor’s daughter and Frank’s sister. Rev. Drum was quietly composing himself for what everyone expected to be a thoughtful, lengthy prayer of grace before the meal was served. Ruth Drum, the pastor’s wife and the mother of Ariel and Frank, rudely interrupted the solemn silence. “For God’s sake, Nathan, can’t you, just this once, offer an ordinary grace?” (P. 269.) (Emphasis added.)

Everyone at the lunch was stunned into a nervous silence. Jake Drum, Frank’s younger and stuttering brother, broke the quiet and surprised his embarrassed parents and the others with these three words: “I’ll say grace.” Then Jake, after a brief stutter, prayed, “Heavenly Father, for the blessings of this food and these friends and our families, we thank you. In Jesus’ name, amen.” (P. 270.) (Emphasis added.)

Frank, who was startled and frightened by Jake’s announcing he would say the grace, afterwards looked at his brother “with near reverence and thought to myself, ‘Thank you, God.’” Frank also commented that this grace was “so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember it. Yet I have never across the forty years since it was spoken forgotten a single word.” (P. 270.)  (Emphasis added.)

Therefore, a simple answer to the question about the meaning of “ordinary grace” is it was the simple prayer offered before lunch by an ordinary person, a young boy without any theological education.

But this is too simple an answer, in my opinion.

Immediately after saying this prayer, Jake’s stutter disappeared, and he told his brother that he thought he never would stutter again. Jake added that this change was a miracle that happened without his seeing a light or hearing a voice. Instead, Jake said he “wasn’t afraid anymore” and if “we put everything in God’s hands, maybe we don’t any of us have to be afraid anymore.” (Pp. 281-82.) Their mother concurred, saying, “it was a miracle by the grace of God.” (P. 292.) (Emphasis added.)

In other words, although the prayer itself may have been an “ordinary grace,” Jake’s being able to say it and its impact on his stuttering were examples of God’s grace or divine grace.

Another example of divine grace entering the lives of the people of this small town in 1961 through the words of an ordinary person was the sermon by Rev. Drum on the Sunday after Ariel’s death.

  • Rev. Drum said that the events of the past week had caused him to think about “the darkest moment in the Bible [when] Jesus in his agony on the cross cries out, ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’” In “that moment of his bitter railing [Jesus] . . . must have felt betrayed and completely abandoned by his father, a father he’d always believed loved him deeply and absolutely. How terrible that must have been and how alone he must have felt. . . . Jesus . . . saw with mortal eyes, felt the pain of mortal flesh, and knew the confusion of imperfect mortal understanding.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Rev. Drum continued with a personal confession. “I see with mortal eyes. My mortal heart this morning is breaking. And I do not understand. I confess that I have cried out to God, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’” (Emphasis added.)
  • “When we feel abandoned, alone, and lost,” Rev. Drum added, “what’s left to us? What do I have, what do you have, . . . except to rail against God and to blame him for the dark night into which he’s led us, to blame him for our misery, to blame him and cry out against him for not caring? What’s left to us when that which we love most has been taken?”
  • “I will tell you what’s left, three profound blessings. In his first letter to the Corinthians  [I Corinthians 13:13], Saint Paul tells us exactly what they are: faith, hope, and love. These gifts, which are the foundation of eternity, God has given to us and he’s given us complete control over them. Even in the darkest night, it’s still within our power to hold to faith. We can still embrace hope. And although we may ourselves feel unloved we can still stand steadfast in our love for others and for God. All this is in our control. God gave us these gifts and he does not take them back. It is we who choose to discard them.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “And in your dark night, I urge you to hold to your faith, to embrace hope, and to bear your love before you like a burning candle, for I promise that it will light your way.”
  • “And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. . . . The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”
  • “I invite you, my brothers and sisters, to rejoice with me in the divine grace of the Lord and in the beauty of this morning, which he has given us.” (Pp. 194-95.) (Emphasis added.)

Frank commented that he “left the church that morning feeling, as I do to this day [40 years later], that I had experienced a miracle, the one promised by my father who had spoken a truth profound and simple.” (Emphasis added.)

For me, these examples and the rest of the novel suggest that there is no difference between ordinary grace and divine grace, which for Christians refers to acts of favor or gifts from God toward humans that we have not earned or do not deserve. Indeed, Saint Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians says, “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” (II Corinthians 5: 20.) This theological issue is left to the reader to ponder.

The novel reminds us that death comes into everyone’s life, often at unanticipated moments. In other words, death exists in the midst of life. The key issue for those affected by death of family members and friends is how do we respond. Funeral or memorial services always remind me that my days are numbered and that I do not know when my death will arrive. Therefore, I should live each day as if it were my last and be present in the moment. Despite this obvious conclusion, I too often do not live that way.

The novel also reminds us that children, here the 13-year old Frank and his younger brother Jake, can be strong and insightful even when faced with stressful events like the death of family members and friends. Indeed, the two boys seem stronger in some ways than their parents, at least in Frank’s account.

Of course, we are hearing the account of this year from only one participant, 40 years after the fact. We undoubtedly would have other perspectives if there were reports from at least the other members of Frank’s family.

Near the end of the novel Frank, now a high school history teacher, acknowledges these limitations of his account of that summer when he says that “when you look back at a life, yours or another’s, what you see is a path that weaves into and out of deep shadow. So much is lost. What we use to construct the past is what has remained in the open, a hodgepodge of fleeting glimpses . . . . [W]hat I recall of that . . .  summer . . .  is a construct of what stands in the light and what I imagine in the dark where I cannot see.” (P. 302.)

Indeed, Frank says, “there is no such thing as a true event. We know dates and times and locations and participants but accounts of what happened depend upon the perspective from which the event is viewed. . . . I’m aware that Jake and my father recall things I don’t and what we remember together we often remember differently. I’m sure that each of us has memories that for reasons our own we don’t share. Some things we prefer remain lost in the shadows of our past.”

Ordinary Grace” offers an extraordinary exploration of grace and wisdom. The five deaths in one summer in a small town also allow the novelist’s mystery-writing skills to peak through. Reading the novel has many rewards.[2]


[1] A prior post expressed my objection to the use of this quotation in this novel.

[2] “Ordinary Grace” was the “January All-Church Book Read” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. The novelist, William Kent Krueger, is the author of the award-winning Cork O’Connor mystery series set in northern Minnesota. Now I want to read them.