I have now had 63 birthdays and, as always, I grow more thoughtful on my birthday. The life expectancy of a man in Canada is 80 years of age. In China it’s 74; in South Sudan it’s 53. So, I’m doing okay.
But birthdays are also measured by other standards as well. For all of us there are the physical alterations on our countenance. If I could speak honestly, I love all my wrinkles; it’s as if they’ve been inhabited by the depths of life and experience. They need to be deep so as to house all that I have been through in my years. Our faces should look like homes for the depths of life, or else they remain merely empty show houses.
I looked at my face last night and realized that it had altered slightly because of the chemo and a serious operation. Truthfully, I kind of like it; I not only survived the difficulties, but I’m better for them – healthier, more focused, grateful.
Inevitably, I always get around to the question many of us ask on our special day: have I made a difference? We all have this desire that our lives would matter, and that they especially would have bettered the fate of others in our world. Jarod Kintz’s observation always gets to me in this regard:
“The year you were born marks only your entry into the world. Other years where you prove your worth, they are the ones worth celebrating.”
There have been those years in my life more characterized by failure than achievement, but then again I have to remind myself that even in those difficult years, wisdom is the reward I received for surviving them and becoming better as a result of what I learned.
In one area I have been fortunate enough to have kept my head above water – maintaining the ideals of my youth. They burn just as they did when I was in high school, only the flame is more focused, capable of giving off more light, and with a more gentle heat. If only I could live up to them in a better fashion, for I know that people don’t grow old depending on the numbers of years they live, but by how much they shed their ideals as the years wear on. What we do with our ideals determines the quality and effectiveness of our lives – an enduring reality of history. The real differences between us are not measured by our variety of ideals but whether we actually lived by them. It is a high standard.
Our birthdays mark something special: the day we arrived and became a part of the overall composite of humankind. It could have existed without us, yes, but the real question is: did it improve with us? When our birthdays came around, did we measure ourselves by this reality? Instead of asking what we expect from life, did we ask instead if it actually got from us what our ultimate potential could give it?
Like all parents, mine had hopes for me. They had survived the Depression and Second World War. Theirs was a world huge in its implications and I’m sure they hoped I would sacrifice for its future the way that they had. This was their responsibility as parents, and the fact I understand shows just how well they did their job. But the gap between knowing and doing is huge and can only be closed by the dedicated life – something I still need to work on.
So this morning I commiserate with my earlier years and thank God that in some ways I’m more different from who I was. A wonderful family provides consolation on the journey of growth and reminds us that a family’s true attachment is not one of mere blood, but of the growing respect and joy in each other’s life. Families hardly ever grow in the same geographical place, but wherever they live, they grow, and mine is no different. I thank God for each of them every day.
Friends come to us by choice and remain by affection and shared purpose. I have some terrific ones and the success of my growth is in direct correlation to their love and patience.
So, on my birthday I only ask that God keep me growing and that my life be measured more by my contribution to others rather than anything I have received from it personally. But in this one way I never want to change. Life gave me ideals and they have never forsaken me. Even more remarkable, I have maintained them as the jewels of my life. All these years can’t take away the same power those values displayed in my youth. I marvel at them for their ability to take the years and sculpt them into remarkable works of art. And if they can have their way with us, they will assure that, despite many attempts and failures, our lives become more about sacrifice and growth than complacency and security. I am one such man and the years aren’t done with me yet.
Remember the words in the Pink Floyd song Free Four: “The memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime?” That’s not me; I’m still discovering my prime and my memories are being built today. And on this, my special day, thanks to all those who keep steering me in that direction.