The day I took pen in hand to write this column I could not help but notice the date has two significant meanings for me, one of which is shared by all my fellow citizens of this country. It is the deadline for filing income tax for 2009. Along with everyone else I bemoaned the fact that it will be mid-May before I will have finished earning enough to pay taxes (all kinds of taxes) for the current year, if I am an average American, which I trust that I am.
There is a sense, however, in which I am proud to be a tax-payer. I am glad to have had enough income to pay federal and state taxes, in addition to all the other taxes payed most every day. For all of the faults we see (and imagine), I am glad to be living under a system of government in which I feel relatively safe. The government, all the way from the city of Monroeville, Alabama, to the federal government, has many critics, of which I am (occasionally) one. However, I doubt any of us want to live in a country with no government. If you have ever visited a third world country with corrupt and incompetent government, you would probably feel better about our own. We just want better and more efficient government. My father used to say that all the government needs to do is "guard the coast and carry the mail". It is obvious that we live in a society in which the government has a much larger responsibility. It has been said that "people usually have the kind of government leaders they deserve. Every time a city police car drives by my house at night, or I meet a sheriff's department vehicle or Highway Patrol car on the road, I am a grateful tax-payer. When I pass by an Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine or Coast Guard base, or when I see a soldier in the airport leaving for some place where he or she will be in harm's way, I tip my hat. When I see a veteran of some past war, I tip my hat as well. There is more, but enough to make me a grateful citizen and tolerant tax-payer.
The second meaning of this day, April 15th, 2010, is far more personal. On this day, I become an ‘octogenarian'. It is awesome, and a little embarrassing to attain an age category that you cannot spell without checking the dictionary! But here I am, with dictionary in hand.
According to my daily diary, which I have kept almost continuously for more than 50 years, I will have lived 29,375 days as of April 15, 2010. My goal is 30,000, but I am subject to upping the goal to 31,000 if I still feel young at the time. You know how we all say we are ready to go until we see the train coming down the track, and then we tend to decide put off the Long Journey a little longer.
On Feb. 27, 2010 a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile shifted the axis around which the earth mass is balanced by about 3 inches. This was enough to speed up the earth's rotation so as to shorten the day by 1.26 millionths of a second. This is twice the amount that was sliced from the day by the 2004 earthquake in Sumatra. This may sound like infinitesimal changes, but they will last "forever." This is a symbolic reminder that since our days are shorter, and the Bible says they are numbered, we had better get on with what we are here to do. This is useful information to everyone, especially an "octogenerian."
So, indulge me for a moment as I reflect on the process of aging. First let me say that I am very grateful to be alive. Life is so uncertain that anyone my age should thank God and take courage every day you get up and find your name is not in the obituary column. Life is a wonderful gift, and it should never be taken for granted.
I cannot help but recall two lines from the autobiography of the great lawyer, Clarence Darrow, as he reflected on growing old. He wrote: "Nature treats all her children as she does the fields and forests; in late autumn, as the cold blasts are coming on, she strips us for the ordeal that is waiting. Our steps grow slower, our efforts briefer, our journeys shorter, our ambitions are not so irresistible, and our hopes no longer wear wings." I can identify with that description.
The inimitable words of Mark Twain come to mind, who, at the age of 70, spoke of "all of those garrulous old people who explain the process by which they got to where they are, and dwell on the particulars with senile rapture".
So, for any of you who may be waiting with bated breath for the cumulative wisdom of an old man who has spent a lifetime trying to learn how best to tell the story of God and his Special Son, here it is:
Do good. Love one another. Be slow to judge and quick to praise. Find corners of happiness and joy wherever you can. Remember the poor and the oppressed, and above all: Be thankful for each new day, for it is not something you earned. It is a gift from God!