The right to life

I’m 56 years old as I write this, with a net worth of zero on a good day. I figure they’ll let me keep teaching English for another 10-15 years. After that, what?

When I was a kid, men would retire at 65, putter in the garden or on the golf course for a couple of years, and then drop dead of a heart attack. The widows would collect the pensions and life insurance payments and live on for a few more years. Retirement was not such a problem.

Today many of us are likely to be laid off or encouraged to retire at 60, at which point we can look forward to 20-30 more years of life without an income. Even if we had done everything we were supposed to do, it’s highly unlikely we could have saved up that much money. And of course most of us didn’t do what we should have. Like me.

Living in China, I see lots of grandparents taking care of babies and toddlers whose parents are both working. Great-grandparents live with one or another of their children, or grandchildren, and are taken care of by the family. This model has much to recommend it, but do I have any right to expect my children to take care of me when I can no longer take care of myself? I am not sentimental about these matters. The fact is, they didn’t ask to be born. If I have cared for them, that’s because I chose to do so and because I feel an obligation to do so. If they choose to care for me, it should be just that—a choice. Certainly I don’t feel I have any right to be cared for at their expense.

In European social democracies, they take care of old folks, but the demographics in Europe, as in America, are not good: declining birthrates for several generations mean a huge population of seniors whose upkeep must be financed from the earnings of a shrinking pool of workers. In North America there is only a token effort to care for the aged, and that is likely to dry up altogether under these demographic pressures. Either way, we old folks should not expect the government to look after us.

And at what cost, exactly, should we wish to go on living? The intermittent debate concerning assisted suicide or euthanasia centers on extreme cases of physical debilitation, but as I imagine my future I wonder just how worthwhile my life will feel when I am living in some hovel or upstairs room, unable to work, with little or nothing to occupy me. What will be the point of continuing to occupy space and consume resources? If I’m teaching immigrants to read, or writing a novel, OK, but if I’m just watching the telly or sitting on a park bench, what kind of a life is that?

As I said, I’m not a sentimentalist about life, nor is my view complicated by any religious beliefs about immortality. I think the Greeks had it right when they used the same word—psyche—to mean mind and soul, and modern neuroscience has clarified things much further: the mind is the brain; consciousness results from the functioning of the brain, and when the brain dies, we cease to exist. There is a kind of immortality in genetics. I’ve read enough of my family history going back several generations to know that just as a frog is highly similar to his ancestors, so I am highly similar to mine, and my children are similar to me. But when my brain shuts down my personal consciousness will end.

So at what point will checking out seem like a good option? At 65? 75? 90? And whenever it is, who, exactly, should have the right to tell me, then, that I must go on living? It has long seemed absurd to me that governments can impose restrictions on where I can work or travel, and demand money from me if I decide to marry and even more money if I decide to divorce. But how much more absurd is it to assert that someone else has the right to tell me that I must go on living when my life has become persistently unpleasant for me? It’s my body, it’s my life, and when my circumstances reach the point that I really have nothing to look forward to, then I won’t demand a comfortable, upper-middle class lifestyle, or free health care: but I will demand that no one stop me from ending my life. It’s mine, after all.