I remember vividly during my secondary school days at Aguata High School Aguata, how one of my classmates nearly caused me high blood pressure during one of our promotion examinations. The subject in question was Geography. We were given six pages of foolscap sheets. I was writing on the second page when the student raised his hand and shouted, “Excuse me Sir! Paper please!” My breath failed me. My brain nearly got shattered. I was wondering how the student finished writing six pages just after twenty minutes the examination commenced. Even the invigilator was imagining if he had an electronic brain and electronic hand that could think and write so fast. Hardly did I know that it was just the beginning of the examination wonders. By the time I was writing on the fourth page of my foolscap sheets, the student again shouted, “More papers please!” I nearly urinated on my white short. The right hand with which I was holding my pen began to shake terribly. In fact dizziness took over my entire body system. I was asking myself if my intelligence was so poor and my hand was so slow in writing that my classmate could finish writing twelve pages when I was writing the fourth. I felt that I would fail that Geography examination. At last the student wrote fifteen pages while I wrote only six pages. I went out of the examination hall in absolute silence and fear of what my fate would be. The fifteen-page student was making noise and jubilating over his wonderful production.
Wonders shall never end. Open your ears. When the result finally came out, I scored 80% while the presumed more intelligent and fifteen-page student scored 55%. He was so sad when he got his marked answer scripts. He went to the Geography teacher with his voluminous marked answer scripts and complained of injustice. The teacher frowned at him, saying, “You wrote a bundle of geographical nonsense. What matters is quality and not quantity. What I want is going straight to the point and not beating about the bush as you did.” After that incidence I was never moved again by the shouting of “Paper please!” throughout my studies. It pays to go straight to the point than writing out of point (O.P).
Where am heading to? Most people pray for long life and prosperity. The Psalmist laments, “All our days pass under your wrath, our lives are over like a sigh. The span of our life is seventy years; eighty for those who are strong, but their whole extent is anxiety and trouble, they are over in a moment and we are gone” (Psalm 90: 9 – 10). On the contrary, the Prophet Isaiah says, “Never again will there be an infant who lives only a few days, nor an old man who does not run his full course; for the youngest will die at a hundred, and at a hundred the sinner will be accursed” (Is. 65:20). From the above two biblical quotations, it becomes clear that the psalmist puts our life span between 70 and 80 years while Isaiah tags it at 100 and above.
I attended the hilarious 70th birthday of one of my parishioners. We celebrated thanksgiving Mass with him. From the liturgical table we went over to the appetitive table. It was a movement from Missa to Mensa. Assorted food items and drinks were available on the birthday table. We began with the blessing and breaking of kola nut. Then one of us toasted a bottle of German wine and poured blessings on the celebrant. The birthday celebrant presented German wine because the Germans live long and healthy. Presenting Nigerian or African wine entails short and excruciating life span. Next we sang the “Happy Birthday to you!” popular song for the celebrant. The spirit of joy descended on each and every one of us. Later we began to demolish the assorted food and drinks on the table.
At the end of everything I was called up to give the vote of thanks. First of all, I gave thanks to the Creator for blessings our celebrant with the highest minimum biblical span of years. I appreciated the septuagenarian for the spiritual and bodily nourishments we received at his birthday. Then I wished him good life and heaven at last. I saw happiness on one section of his face and also saw sadness on the other section. The time came for him to speak. He stood up gallantly and cleared his throat. He thanked us for honouring his invitation, praying for him and for dinning with him on his 70th birthday. Specifically, he commented on my vote of thanks. He remarked that life actually begins at 70. He asked us to pray God to bless him with long life and prosperity. He made this underlining statement: “Even though I want to go to heaven, I am not in a hurry. I want to live like the biblical patriarch called Methuselah, who died at the age of 969.” At this greatest joke of the birthday celebration, laughter and teasing filled the atmosphere. After all was said and done, the closing prayer was said and all departed happily.
Here in Nigeria, the obituary posters of the octogenarian up to the centenarian bear the title “Celebration of Life.” The celebration here involves longevity. The more the years lived, the greater the celebration. My people refer to the death of someone who died from eighty years and above as “ozu oriri.” In this case no weeping for the dead is required. Instead the bereaved family should rejoice and present plenty of food and drinks. Cows are expected to be slaughtered in the name of the dead who lived long, even if he was bedridden for years.
On the other hand, there are those who are said to die untimely. It ranges from sixty-nine years downwards. When a young man or woman dies, his/her departure is referred to as ‘Painful Exit’ or ‘Sunset at Dawn’. In other words, the death involving elderly persons are not painful. Their own sun sets at the right time. The demise of children or youth is also referred to as “Gone too soon.” How soon depends on the number of years lived. Such painful departure is known by the Igbo as “ozu anyammiri” (tearful death). The bereaved family often mourns despairingly and asks, “O God, why?” Our people expect that everyone should live long before dying. In some places, dying young is seen as a taboo.
Who determines the number of years one should live? If it is left in our hands as human beings, no one ought to die below the age of a hundred. However, it is God the Creator who holds the keys of life and death. He did not consult us when He created us and He does not need our consent when to die. Our input is only required in our salvation. Saint Augustine says it all: “God created us without our consultation but He cannot save us without our cooperation.” Thus God only needs our consent in salvation and not in death. Shakespeare asserts that death is a necessary end which must come when it will come. It can come during infancy, in youthful age or in adult age. What is required from you and me is to be ready always. There are two essential dates in the life of every human being: Birthday and Death-day. We know our birthday easily but our death-day is never predictable. What of an individual who decides to commit suicide on a specific day, does he not know his death-day? Most often the condemned criminals in prisons know quite well that their death is imminent but they are not told the specific date. Likewise we all know that we shall die, but when, where and how remain uncertain. I thank God for not disclosing to us the date of our individual deaths. If such is known, it will bring about laziness and despair. No one will be thinking of the future. We shall only concentrate on the past and present. Our planet would have been stagnant if the future is not thought about. The future makes it possible for one generation to hand over to the next generation; and life goes on.
In conclusion, what matters is not how long we lived but how well we lived. We can achieve a lot within a short life span. At the judgment seat, God will not ask us how long we lived, rather what did we achieve while on earth. The quality of human life is better than the quantity. Quality can be superlative while quantity can be nonsensical. Longevity is good if it ends well. During a race, success is counted on reaching the goal excellently. A runner can start well and end badly. No wonder St Paul hits the hammer at the nail when he says, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24). If we lose concentration during our earthly journey, we may end up in the law of diminishing return. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. A short life well lived is better than a shameful long life. Therefore, let us pray for good life, whether short or long. However, long life is desirable if goodness punctuates it. God can work with us but He cannot work for us. Heaven is our target. Struggle continues!
By Fr. Pat Amobi Chukwuma
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