Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: On Life, Death, and Taxes

When I began to write this column, I could not help but notice that between its writing and publication, there is a date that has a double meaning for me, one of which is shared with all my fellow citizens. The date is April 15th, the standard deadline for filing income tax returns, and it is also my 82nd birthday. Along with most everyone else, I bemoan my tax obligations. There is also a sense, however, in which I am proud to be a tax-payer.

I am glad to have had enough income to require me to pay federal and state taxes. For all the faults we see (as well as those we imagine) I am glad to be living under a system of government in which I feel relatively safe, and enjoy freedoms only imagined by many on this planet we share. The government, all the way from Monroeville, Alabama to Washington, D.C. has many critics, of which I am (occasionally) one. However, criticisms not withstanding, few if any of us want to live in a country with no government. We just want better and more efficient government. My father, who was born in 1900, used to say that all the government needs to do is "guard the coast and carry the mail". It is obvious that in response to increasingly complex issues we have evolved into a society in which the government has a much larger responsibility than the simplistic expectations of my beloved dirt farmer father who lived in the rural South during the Depression. Every time a police car drives by my house, or I meet a sheriff's department vehicle or a highway patrol car on the highway, I am a grateful tax payer. When I pass by a military base, or 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. Our government routinely does much more for us, but these routine reminders are enough to make me a grateful citizen and a tolerant tax payer.

The second meaning of April 15th is far more personal. On this day I will become and "octogenarian", plus two. It is awesome and somewhat 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 29,951 days as of April 15, 2012. Originally my goal was to live 30,000 days, but since that deadline is less than three months away, I have decided to stop counting my days and simply pray to live long enough to use up all my accumulated return address labels. I may also start paying my bills on line, so the labels will last longer. Actually, all our calculations about how long we are going to live are in vain. We are not in charge of the time table for our leaving this world any more than we were in charge of when we were born. If there is an expiration date on our lives, we do not know when it is. We only know we are not here to stay. Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Young and old, we are all on our last cruise". Are you comfortable with that?

In one of his provocative ruminations, Leroy (Satchel) Paige asked, "How old would you be if you did not know how old your are?" Although there is a sense in which age is a state of mind, thinking young will not keep our bodies from growing old. That being said, maintaining a flexible attitude and toned body may keep us from growing old prematurely. However, I seem to be living proof that living as if you are younger than your chronological age has a relatively limited influence on the physical process of aging . In a recent consultation with my physician, I asked what I should do about a certain health problem. He opined that the first thing I should do is to begin to function like an 82 year old rather than trying to act like a 49 year old. I think he has been talking with my wife, who says that I am a complete failure at retirement.

The famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, reflecting on the process of growing old in his autobiography 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. And then Mark Twain, as both a warning and a reminder, at age 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 life-time as a hired-hand for the Church, trying to learn how best to tell the story of God and God's Special Son, here it is.

Do good. Love one another, but do not feign affection. Be yourself for you are the only one who can properly do that. Be gentle with yourself but not self-centered. Be slow to judge, quick to praise, and kind to everyone. Find corners of happiness and joy when and wherever you can. Nurture your spiritual life, not only for the sense of joy and peace it brings, but also as a reservior of strength to help you manage and survive the unexpected losses and adversities that inevitably come in life. Remember the people who are poor, oppressed, distressed, hungry, sick and in any way marginalized, and come to their aid whenever and however you can. Be an advocate for good causes, and speak out against evil, but do not take on more battles than you are able to successfully survive. Be thankful for each new day for it is not something you earned. It is a gift from God.