I turned 75 recently, and I don’t feel 75. Though there are some irritating senior moments of whatshername type, the old mind still bubbles with ideas as it did 61 years ago when I published my first science piece in a national newspaper. 

Should I thank the medical science or the genes I have inherited?

The genes, they all are not perfect. Some of the rogue ones I can blame for type 2 diabetes which I have stoically challenged for nearly 25 years. I know I can never win against their single-mindedness to instruct some murderous molecules to attack blood vessels in my body when I watch the nurse struggling to find a vein in my arm to draw blood for testing.

Philip Larkin was right when he wrote:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with faults they had

And some extra, just for you.

Advances in genetics have side-lined the old idea of nature versus nurture, proposed in 1874 by Francis Galton. But both nature (destiny as encoded in genes) and nurture (freedom, as in our lifestyles and beliefs) shape our lives.

I was a schoolboy when I discovered the motto of the sundial (“I record only hours of sunshine.”) and a saying of Epictetus (“Before we try to control our circumstances we have to control ourselves first; and nothing lies completely in our power except our judgments, desires and goals.”)

These two bright beliefs have positively nurtured my mindset. Would they be enough when I face the surest thing in life: death?

We are now living longer but not necessarily healthier as the ageing cells put breaks on our mental and physical abilities. In spite of all the medical advances, there is no getting away from the pain that Epicurus advised us 2,300 years ago to fear – and not death.

It’s evolution that inculcates our desire to live. It’s also the evolution that cruelly takes this desire away from some of us, for it has failed to equip us with a mechanism to cope with excruciating and continuous pain. When this pain becomes unbearable, it’s understandable to me at least; the desire to end life overtakes millions of years of genetic programming designed to perpetuate it.

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an American oncologist and bioethicist, says that 75 years is all he wants to live: “By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life … I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make.” He makes his compelling argument that society and families will be better if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly in The Atlantic magazine. 

Emanuel, 57 when he wrote the article, says that he won’t be actively ending his life when he turns 75 but won’t try to prolong it, either. He plans to stop getting any regular preventive tests, screenings and interventions: “Today, when the doctor recommends a test or treatment, especially one that will extend our lives … The momentum of medicine and family means we will almost invariably get it.”

The ethical questions I face at 75 are not only about dying with dignity when pain becomes unbearable but also about prolonging life beyond a certain age.

© Surendra Verma 2017

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