My father spent the past weekend with us in Austin. On Friday morning, my wife and I drove to his west Houston senior community and picked him up. We then returned along the same route back to Austin arriving mid-afternoon. The Austin to west Houston 154-mile drive along good roads takes about 2.5 hours to complete. We have done this drive many times since living in Austin.
My father will turn 90 years old in April. He lives in a modern apartment within the senior complex and enjoys the amenities: dining, social activities, and recreation. When something breaks, the staff repairs it. When a prescription needs to be filled, there is a pharmacy. Most of his daily needs are housed on the expansive grounds of multi-story buildings. During the pandemic, the staff brought him three meals a day to his room, which kept the residents socially distanced and safe. The medical staff arranged in-house COVID vaccinations for the seniors, and all are now vaccinated. He is fortunate to have this level of care during his later years.
Our role during the past weekend was to shower him with love, food, and companionship. Traveling outside his senior community during the pandemic was a treat for him. He could walk safely around our quiet streets and see another city without driving. We enjoyed spending time with him and look forward to his upcoming milestone birthday.
“What is the difference, if any, between a good life and a significant one?” This question was asked in the Prologue of the book Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, Editors, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006). The editors are university professors who posed this question to a group of students. “Some students argued that a good life is a matter of character, having to do with the kind of person you are. A significant life, on the other hand, is simply a consequential life, they thought, a life that influences a great number of people. A person does not have to be morally good to be significant or influential.” (page 9)
However, not all the students agreed. “A significant life must be a good life, and it must change the world for the better.” I have been researching vocation and this question was on my mind this weekend while spending time with my elderly father. Was his life good, significant, or both? The editors stated in their Introduction: “We cannot ponder our livelihoods without at one and the same time thinking about the shape, the meaning, and the significance of our entire lives. We cannot decide what we should do without considering who we are and what we might become.” (page 8)
My father did not change the world in a consequential way through influencing a great number of people. His primary influences were on his family: he raised four children while working as a professional for a major energy company. His occupation allowed his children to attend colleges of their choice. His children raised six grandchildren, and his grandchildren now have three children to raise. His thirteen descendants have earned to-date twenty-four undergraduate and graduate degrees. During the past seven decades, he attended swim meets, school events, scouting activities, church functions, and numerous family gatherings. He lived a middle-class life that centered around the home and local community; nothing spectacular and some might say ‘boring.’ But as I reflected upon the question this weekend, I came to the conclusion that his life was both good and significant.
My father is a person of good character. He taught his children the difference between right and wrong through his daily life. He gave us the freedom to discover our God-given gifts and to ask difficult questions, as long as we did it honestly and respectfully. He balanced his occupation and family life. Once, when asked by his employer to move to another community that had lower quality schools, he commuted rather than move his family. He left early in the morning so that he could be home in time for dinner or to attend after school activities. He drove us to church on Sundays and served in leadership roles. This was where my faith journey began. His faithful witness flowed down to his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and will flow further to future generations after his death.
My father is significant because he influenced the lives of others in a significant way. William James (1842-1910), a psychologist and philosopher, wrote “What Makes a Life Significant?” (pages 14–28). James changed his definition of significance after observing construction workers building a skyrise: “As I awoke to all this unidealized heroic life around me, the scales seemed to fall from my eyes; and a wave of sympathy greater than anything I had ever before felt with the common life of common men began to fill my soul.”
My father is not a wealthy man, at least not financially, although he does live a middle-class life. He was not a renown scientist nor statesman, although he is a very well-read geologist who voices his political opinions. He never preached a sermon nor studied theology, although he does publicly demonstrate his faith through his actions. What makes him significant was that he transformed the lives of those closest to him who in turn, transform the lives of future generations. When I read Scripture, God asks for nothing more or less from the faithful.