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James R. Stout

How Do You Want To Be Remembered?

            From an early age I loved to read. I remember some of the books that I first had such as the ”Little Golden Books” and books about dinosaurs, the animal kingdom, and fairy tale books. By the time I was 6-years-old I was doing my best to read some of my father’s science fiction novels. There were some big words in those books, but my Dad was more than happy to tell me what they meant, and we would have animated conversations about the stories in those books. When I was about 9 or 10 the Bookmobile would come to our school and I started to gravitate towards what would become one of my favorite genres - Biographies.

            I started with the biographies of people like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Jim Thorpe – All American. It wasn’t long before I read every biography I could get my hands on. I read about sports heroes such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, our founding fathers including President Washington, President Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and many others. I read about famous people from all over the world and many nations. I would read practically anything about people of the Bible. In Junior High School each grade had a certain area of history that was studied. In 7th grade we studied Texas History. Of course, I already knew of Jim Bowie, William Travis, Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, and I had gone to elementary school at James Bonham Elementary. A junior officer who died at the Alamo. In 8th Grade we studied American History. In high school there was World History in 9th grade, American History again in 11th grade, and in our senior year we had Government and Economics or what was earlier known as Civics Class. I’ve always thought of history as the biography of a people or society.

            I became enthralled with historical fiction along the way. My favorite authors of that genre included Louis L’amour, Zane Grey, and other writers like them. I ended up majoring in History and Christianity in college. A Christianity degree was basically another history degree. It is the history of the people of the Bible. Yes, it is much more important than that alone, but studying the lives of Biblical characters was right up my alley.

            All this reading about history and biographies inspired an interest in philosophy as well. One of the first Bible characters whose life caused me to start thinking about life in general was King David. We first hear of him when he was about 15-years-old and, like a biography, we learn of his life until old age and death. I remember in my early years seeing pictures of a young David standing across the way from Goliath armed with a stone and a simple sling with which he fells the giant. The last we see of David is as an old man barely able to walk. It would take me a few years to figure out that all of us, if we live a long life, will experience many of the same things that David did.

            I have come to love reading books such as “Sackett’s Land” and “To The Far Blue Mountains” by Louis L’amour because they tell the life story of the fictional character. In this case, Barnabas Sackett. The books start in about 1580 when Barnabas is a boy and end with his death sometime in the 1630’s They are well-crafted books and I enjoy them immensely. Books such as these have caused me to ponder the lives of many a person both real and fictional. I remember the first time I read “To Kill A Mockingbird” one of the characters that I initially didn’t like was Mrs. Dubose. I read that book the first time when I was about 12. I thought she was just a grouchy old woman. A mean old woman. By the time I had read that book several times and I had aged somewhat I came to understand what Mrs. Dubose was all about. Yes, she was old, but she was encumbered with the ailments of being old. She wasn’t really mean. She just didn’t feel very good. She knew her time on Earth was short and she didn’t want to be addicted to the drugs that they were giving her for pain. Her way of being distracted from her pain while she went through withdrawal from the drugs was to have Scout read to her. I’ve thought about Mrs. Dubose a lot over the years. I can imagine her as a vibrant young woman perhaps 50 or 60 years before we knew of her in the book. Maybe she was thrilled at going to a dance when she was 17 and being “courted” by her future husband. Perhaps she wore a dress that she daydreamed of later in life and remembered how  her body was young and pretty and how she was before the ravages of time that comes to us all if we live long enough came to her. When I was twelve, I didn’t understand those things the same way that the character of Scout didn’t understand them. Now that I am in my 60’s I understand them all too well!

            Now that I have read many biographies and the stories of many characters, I have come to understand that while we live our own individual and specific lives, we also share many things in common with each other. I remember how great it felt to run and jump and play as a child. The energy I had then amazes me now. I played hard and grew tired, but I slept better too. When I was 13-years-old I got a splinter in the heel of my right foot. Try as she might, my mother just couldn’t seem to get that splinter out. But she figured it would work its way out on its own soon enough. Two months later the pain in my heel was terrible. Any pressure at all on that foot brought a lot of pain. The splinter was impacted, and it was going to take a doctor to remove it. So, the first day of our Christmas holidays I went to the doctor’s office and he performed minor outpatient surgery to remove that splinter. There I was on the table and Dr. Spears came into the room with a needle that was about three inches long. That was just for numbing my foot so that he could do some cutting and digging around. You might say that I learned the hard way about wearing shoes while outside! I didn’t cry, but I sure didn’t enjoy that hour or so in his office. But as I hobbled out to the car, I knew that it wouldn’t be too many days before I would be back to running and doing all the things a boy likes to do. I tell this story to show that we all go through such things in life. Some kids I knew broke arms and legs. I felt sorry for them. One guy I knew was doing his best to be Tarzan and tried to swing across a bayou on a rope. He was only 10 years old at the time. He misjudged things when he let go of the rope and ended up crashing into a big drainage pipe. The result? Both arms broken. I still cringe at the thought of how it must have been for him to rely on his mother to help him go to the bathroom for the next three months!

            All too soon we start to age. By the time we’re in our 40’s things aren’t working quite as well as they once did. I had perfect eyesight until I was 40. I mean, when I was 37, I had to have a complete physical for a new job. My eyesight was 20/18 and 20/17. Better than 20/20! But three years later I started noticing that book publishers were printing their books in smaller print. Or were they? It started with reading glasses. Now I’m basically blind without my glasses. I can’t see to read billboards without my glasses now. I couldn’t enjoy all the books that I love to read without my glasses. I’ve also noticed that people seem to mumble more now than they used to. Or do they? The jury is still out on that one. I wake up every morning to the sound of music. There’s a whole percussion ensemble that welcomes me to each new day. They’re all invisible though. I haven’t seen them yet. I only hear them. There’s a guy that snaps. Someone else pops. Several members of the ensemble crackle. There’s a guy that beats a big bass drum. Curiously, I only hear him in my right ear. Even more curious is he beats right along with my heartbeat. Weird, huh? At least I don’t have pimples like I did 50 years ago. That would be totally unfair.

            I joke a lot these days about this stuff, but it’s just more proof that our bodies age and wear out. We can’t believe it’s going to happen to us when we’re in our 20’s and then we’re incredulous when it does happen to us. The deal is all those stories about people in all those books highlight what life is all about. There’s the physical stuff as just mentioned, but there’s the other stuff too. The joys, the sorrows, the happy times, the sad times, the crushing defeats, the soaring heights of success, the moments of quiet, the cacophonies that gives us headaches, the depths of despair, the cherished moments of contentment, the love, the hate, the symbolic, the surreal, and all the emotions that span the years of a life are seen more clearly at the end of a life than at any other time.

            I think that if it is true that we gain wisdom as we age, then maybe the wisest thing that we can come to know is that despite our differences we are more alike than not. And, if this is true, then we should be learning the beautiful act of compassion for one another. Next time you see an old person who has trouble walking or standing or hearing or seeing, have compassion for them. If you live long enough, then you’ll appreciate it when someone has compassion for you. The next time you see anyone who is bearing a burden that you have been spared of having, have compassion for them. It could be you next week. When we leave this world, we don’t take anything with us except our souls. All the things that you covet and strive to gain in life will stay behind. Within a hundred years or less they will likely not exist. What will remain is how we treat each other. The child that you love and give encouragement to will remember how you loved them and helped them when they were small. The friend that you were to others will be remembered fondly and with love. Consequently, if you leave a legacy of hurt or pain, then this will be what you are remembered for. I for one want to be remembered as someone that had compassion for people. I want to be remembered for my capacity to love and lift up rather than anything negative. How about you?

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