My brother and I are in our 80s, the last of a family of five – four boys and a sister. We are running out of breath and time.
Growing up, times were stressful. The effect of World War I on dad. The family home was lost in the Great Depression, as was dad’s employment.
Then WW2, with older brothers serving in the Middle East and New Guinea. An uncle a prisoner of the Japanese. The war news was bad and the front line was approaching us in Melbourne.
We lived with Scottish grandparents. Strict down the line. Our mother had a stock saying to make us feel ashamed of something we had said or done. Very severely, “That’s not worthy of you!”
What did "worthy" mean? How could we earn her approval? I still wonder. She really wanted us to be perfect.
Even as boys we knew we were far from perfect. Lots of imperfections then and still.
Grandfather attended the Kirk twice a Sunday, morning and evening. Our compulsory attendance was morning and Sunday School in the afternoons for years, RE classes at the local state school. But it seemed we were still unworthy, as our actions showed. How could we ever be worthy?
We can speak of what is of value, worthwhile things. Worthwhile lives such as Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale, Fred Hollows and Weary Dunlop. Inspirations of worthiness.
History has recorded their deeds. But they would be the first to admit their imperfections. Saint Paul, the great missionary, author and Christian convert, still confessed himself to be the "chief of sinners".
Maybe the assessment of worthiness has to do with our individual life journeys. What have we done to add to the support of and wellbeing of others? How have we added to the social fabric to make life better for others? What have we learned from our human mistakes? What would the eulogy summing up our lives sound like? Can worthy be earned?
Jesus met a successful businessman one day who wanted to be worthy, to inherit eternal life. Recognising his influence as a teacher of wisdom, he ran up to Jesus and said as he knelt before him, “Good Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, "You know the commandments. Do not murder. Be faithful in marriage. Do not steal. Do not tell lies about others. Do not cheat. Respect your father and mother."
Self-righteously, the professional answered. “I have carefully kept each one from my youth up.”
Jesus challenged him. “Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.”
When the man heard this, gloom spread over his face and he went away sad, because he was very rich.
To have riches in heaven was the realisation of a life of true worth. Worth, then, is in the value and cost of the life we are willing to live. It cannot be earned.
Perhaps the secret of achieving worth is a practical philosophy of learning, making mistakes, accepting, trying again, forgiving, saying sorry. Setting new goals. Surely citizens living like that are worthy.
In the community, working, paying tax. In parenting, helping and serving, single or with a partner, are worthwhile. Considering and sharing with the less fortunate, our neighbours in need, here and beyond our borders. Together, building the moral and spiritual worth of the nation. Influencing for good.
In my years there have been many tests on the way. Personally, compulsory national service. Apprehension about the escalating situation in Korea to our north. Having to work part-time and full-time during university holidays to pay for years of tertiary study were added pressures outside the close family circle.
All were tests but added to life’s experiences. Moral fibre challenged. I have learned much.
Now in my 80s, I wonder: have I been worthy? Who can judge? Clearly, I have not achieved perfection, a goal proven humanly impossible.
But I am still willing to put the challenges ahead to the test of experience. There is still time to go before the human journey ends. All in God’s time. With Paul I press on, with the support of faith, family and like-minded friends.
Bill Pugh is a Sunday Age contributor.