I recently wrote an article in this section on greed as a psychological reflex that we can choose to consciously begin to weed out of our own psyches. In this article I'd like to go a step further and talk about greed related to life itself -- and how this greed is breaking our financial backs and heaping unnecessary debt burdens on our children and grandchildren.
I'm talking specifically about our compulsive tendency to try and stay alive well beyond our natural stay on earth, by running up massive pre-death bills that sustain our heartbeat and bodies a short time, even though it's our time to go.
Must we ourselves suffer through the ultimate humiliation and degradation of a prolonged hospital incarceration before dying, while medical machines and drugs keep us somewhat alive and run up massive debt for our children? Must we remain passive victims of the medical-legal-religious establishment in this regard -- or do we have choice and power concerning this ultimate matter of how and when we die?
Facing the Financial Facts
Most of us know (based on TV exposes from 60 Minutes etc.) that Medicare will have to cough up well over $50 billion this year just to cover medical costs to sustain dying people during their last two months of life. As 60 Minutes pointed out, this astounding figure represents more than is spent by the Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security combined.
Statistically, around 1.5 million Americans will die this year who are over the age of seventy-five. As they die their inevitable (and once mostly natural) deaths, during their last two months of life they will (as their last act on earth) negatively drain the coffers of their children's and grandchildren's financial wellbeing by around $200,000, of which tax-payers will pay around $100,000.
Beyond Your Living Will
Now that I'm set to hit 65, I feel I can finally speak up about both the economics and the ethics of this situation that all of us will eventually face -- and talk about what we ourselves can do to break free from the current medical institution's grip on the last days of our lives. Feel free to holler at me as loud as you want to -- but please also consider seriously what I'm doing in my own life, and what you can do too.
The obvious act that we can take is to write a Living Will that clarifies that we want to die a natural death when our time comes to die. But there's a much deeper level of action required, in order to make our coming deaths significant in the revolution to free our community from the 'death debt' that's ruining our economy.
I've made it as legally clear as I could, that after the age of 75 my strong intent is to surrender gracefully to whatever mortal threats come my way willingly, rather than fighting to grab a few more years or months or weeks of life on this planet. I feel in my heart that I've already at 64 gotten my money's worth of life and if I get another ten years, that's a bonus. Why should I ask the medical system to artificially sustain me beyond 75? Why not surrender gracefully rather than grab greedily at more life?
Here's the joke -- who actually wants to end their life with months or years of emotional suffering, mental debilitation, physical trauma and all the rest? Why not go out while you're ahead -- really? What's this underlying greed to gasp a few more breaths before we check out -- what's the point?
Psychology Meets Finance
Well, as a psychologist I can answer most of the point: we're afraid to die. And so we grab onto more life, no matter how humiliating or painful. And if we're to actively insist on dying when our natural time comes, and to go gracefully into the great beyond, whatever that might entail, then we must successfully resolve our fear of dying. We need to spend regular reflection time all during our lives coming to terms with the truth of life -- nobody gets outta here alive.
I don't mean this heartlessly -- just the opposite: I'm looking for the most heartful (and financially-responsible) way to bow out gracefully. Luckily we have remarkable hospice organizations throughout the country to help us do just that. What's important is to embrace all of life and not live in denial of death.
Three Key Reflections
To help me surrender to death gracefully and in a timely manner (and with minimum expense) this is what I ask myself regularly:
1. Do I want to be remembered as a bright light showing that death can be surrendered to in optimum fashion, or do I want to be remembered as yet another greedy old bastard who ran up a giant medical bill because I was afraid to let go and take off?
2. Do I want to end my life drugged up and in prolonged pain, living in a soul-numbing hospital environment, eating terrible food while my loved ones suffer emotionally through my artificially-prolonged last gasp -- or do I want to move beyond this mortal coil quickly when my time comes, with minimum pain and anguish on all sides?
3. Do I want to drag down my own country's economy and consume money that could be better spent on education and the nurturing of new generations -- or shall I make my final act of life generous rather than greedy?
Doing the Right Thing
When we see these choices, I think most of us agree that the time of our death is not a time to be greedy -- it's a time for thankfulness for a long (but not overlong) life, and a time to say goodbye feeling good about money saved, rather than guilty about money down the drain.
That's my read. What's your take on this?