After many years of service as a builder and missionary my father was retiring to the little town of his birth nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains of northern Mexico. He had been preparing for several years by swapping little pieces of land that he owned for other pieces of land that would all be contiguous with each other so that he could irrigate everything with the water from a single well. I was fascinated as I watched him plot the placement of 14,000 apple trees and plan the layout of the well, water lines and sprinkler heads that would be necessary to make them thrive.
But as the actual time of retirement approached, he began to have some doubts. One day I overheard him tell my mother, “It will take five years for those trees to mature enough to produce fruit. I’ll be seventy years old by then!” She smiled at him indulgently and said simply, “Well, you can be seventy years old with no apple trees or you can be seventy years old with 14,000 trees; which do you prefer?” He forged ahead with the project and reaped the benefits to the ripe old age of 98.
I often hear people protest that they are too old to begin some project or to learn some new skill. I think of the woman who began ballet lessons at thirty-six years of age. “Well,” she protested, “thirty-six is pretty old to be starting, and I probably won’t be a performer. But I’ve always wanted to learn this; and if I put it off any longer, I’ll just have to start older. Next year I’ll be thirty-seven no matter what—I might as well be thirty-seven and dancing.”
Time does have a way of passing. It is up to us to determine whether we will take advantage of that fact or simply let time pass us by. Many of God’s creatures survive life through instinct alone. We are the only ones who can create or lose our dreams. There is no point in blaming circumstances for our lives’ courses: we choose how we will respond to each circumstance; we are accountable to ourselves at all times.
Consider the father whose demanding job leaves him exhausted in the evening. In spite of his goal of building positive relationships with his wife and children, he arrives home with no specific idea about how he will spend time with his family, so he sits down in front of the television, switches off his weary mind, and zap!—today’s little issues prevent the realization of his goal. Unless we concentrate on making the days add up to a fruitful year, they run away with it, leaving us 365 purposeless pockets of empty time.
Each January first begins a new year, a year that will surely bring a new me. Twelve months from then I will have changed. That day is the time to resolve what the nature of that change will be. Then—and this is the most difficult part of the equation—the next day and the day after and every tomorrow all year long, I must renew my resolve and take responsibility for making it come true.
The story is told that when Henry Ward Beecher was a boy, he attended the kind of school where the students stood to recite or to respond in class. On one particular day the master asked a simple enough question to which a boy gave what appeared to the others to be a good answer. But the schoolmaster glared at the boy and told him to sit down. The next boy he called on gave much the same answer and was also commanded to be seated. Several boys in succession received the same confusing disapproval of the only answer any of them could think of.
Finally, Beecher was called upon, but when the master roared at him to sit down after he had answered the question, Beecher stood his ground and insisted that he was correct. The master challenged him again; Beecher did not budge. Then a smile broke over the master’s face and he said, “It seems that all of you had the correct answer, but only Beecher was certain enough to stay with it.”
This year I hope to be certain enough in my own direction to stay with it. I don’t want to just act out of instinct or to let circumstances or the passage of time carry me along. I believe that we were meant to shape our own future by our wits. To do so we must take control, creating the new person we want to become each day of the year. It isn’t enough to declare, “But I will be seventy years old!” Hopefully, each of us will get to be seventy—but will we have borne fruit?