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King: Pondering the impact of our lives as a birthday approaches
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September is my birth month. I'll be 79, a prime number, a number that stands alone, indivisible by any integer other than itself and one. Primes have fascinated mathematicians since the time of the early Egyptians and have been the subject of many theories and much debate. We think there are an infinite number of them, but maybe not.

Seventy-nine is also a unique age because 80 is staring you in the face. You're old. There's no escaping it. It's time to look back over your life and question your own existence. My mother lived till she was 97. I may have a number of years left. However, my father died in his early 70s so I could be living on borrowed time.

It's time to ask, what have I accomplished? What do I regret? If I had never lived at all, would the world be better place ... or worse? All one knows for sure is that if he or she had never lived at all, the world would be different — maybe a little, maybe a lot, but it would be different.

But do we really care about what happens in the future? This, of course, is moral question. One of the most original moral philosophers in the English-speaking language (according to an article in the New Yorker) is Derek Parfit. He believes the world would be a better place if people didn't think of themselves as individuals and but as a passing configuration in time. He urges his readers to "... shift to a more impersonal, non-physical, and selfless
view of human life."

I was intrigued because Parfit's thinking is similar to Buddhism, a faith I admire for its pacifism. I liked his thought experiments designed to question an individual's idea of self, and I appreciate his concern for suffering. But I find his degree of detachment rather disquieting.

Nevertheless, the article made me ask: What have I done or failed to do that changed the world for better or worse? One early memory stands out. As a child of 8 or 9, I was playing in front of the post office with some neighborhood kids. It was winter, and we were throwing snowballs at each other. On impulse, I tossed a snowball into the mailbox by the curb.

That fact that I remember is in itself meaningful. It was a minor incident. Although I must have done it to impress my playmates, nobody seems to notice. I was never reprimanded, never punished in any way. But I may have changed somebody's life forever.

The metal mailbox was in the sun. Even with the temperature in the 30s and snow on the ground, the snowball would soon melt. Unless the mailbox was emptied almost immediately, the moisture would eventually blur addresses, detach stamps and damage the contents of the mailbox in a number of ways.

Communication was different then. There was no email. Long distance telephone was expensive. Important messages moved through the mail: love letters, the birth of a baby or the death of a relative, possibly a job opportunity in another state. A letter gone astray could have caused real pain.

On the other hand, someone might have written in anger and wish he could take back his harsh words. Perhaps what had appeared to be a wonderful opportunity might turn into a horrible mistake. But good, bad or indifferent, I was and, even now, am responsible for what ever happened.

When we recite the 23rd Psalm we ask to be led in the path of righteousness. When we say the Lord's Prayer, we beg forgiveness for our sins, but we don't always recognize the path we're on nor are we sure what sin really is. Is it the degree to which we are conscience of wrongdoing, or the degree to which we harm others?

This is a good time to ponder such things.

Joan King is a Sautee resident. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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