Reflections upon 70th birthday

Name a topic, and President Thomas S. Monson can quote a related scripture, recite a pertinent poem, recount an applicable incident from history or draw an appropriate analogy from a literary work or a Broadway musical. He's comfortable conversing on just about any subject.

However, President Monson, first counselor in the First Presidency, hesitated on the topic of his latest interview with the Church News: his 70th birthday. He didn't mind turning 70 on Aug. 21. What he did mind was talking about himself.The full picture of President Monson begins to emerge as one looks at various aspects of his life. For example, among the dozens of pieces of mail arriving in his office recently was a letter from a long-ago acquaintance. Months earlier, President Monson felt prompted to write to his long-time friend, whom he had not seen or heard from since the early 1960s. In his letter, President Monson encouraged him to join the Church. Quite a while later, President Monson learned that his friend had been baptized, received the Melchizedek Priesthood and was preparing to go to the temple to be sealed. All this, the man wrote, came about because President Monson had taken the time to write.

"What if I hadn't written that letter?" President Monson wondered aloud. When a visitor marvels that he has time to write letters, President Monson shrugs it off with the comment, "They're not long letters." Nevertheless, they communicate that he cares and is concerned.

Other glimpses of President Monson, who became a General Authority when he was sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve on Oct. 4, 1963, are seen in the corridors of hospitals and nursing homes throughout the Salt Lake Valley and in many other cities. He frequently visits bedsides to bring comfort and cheer. Often, he gives priesthood blessings or joins a patient's family in fervent prayer.

The compassion he feels for others is a natural offshoot of his upbringing. He remembers how his father, who worked six days a week as a printer, spent Sunday afternoons visiting elderly aunts and taking an uncle stricken with arthritis for automobile rides. He recalls how his mother never turned away transients who came to their kitchen door to ask for food during the Depression, and how she baked birthday cakes and sent Sunday dinners to an elderly widower.

A self-described optimist, President Monson said he often begins his day humming or whistling. Sometimes the refrain is from a Broadway musical, such as "Golden Days," from "The Student Prince." Other times, he hums a hymn, such as "How Firm a Foundation," or "I Need Thee Every Hour."

Humming and whistling seem an apt start to the day one commemorates his 70th birthday.

As he has grown older, he said, he finds that he pauses from time to time to take stock of his life. "I read the obituaries every day," he confided. "When you see people your own age afflicted and experiencing life-threatening illnesses, I think it prompts you to apply to yourself the philosophy, I want to do the best I know how to do every day.' Someone said,Live only in the past, and you'll have a lot of empty yesterdays tomorrow.' "

It's not likely that President Monson will have any empty yesterdays. Even with the busy schedule of the office of his calling, he takes time to seek out the lonely, the sick or the dying who need to feel the press and warmth of his handshake. Whether it's looking up the address of a stranger in an out-of-the-way Salt Lake neighborhood to fulfill a dying request or having his vehicle stop along a Wyoming roadway to offer a ride to a Scout with a physical disability, President Monson seems to turn every day into one in which there is something to cherish.

He feels a keen responsibility to account for how he has spent his time here on earth. "You see your children growing," he said of the passing years. "You look at your grandchildren, and you say to yourself, `What if I weren't here? Have I done all I can to prepare them for their role in life?' You realize that you never quite do everything, but you want to do better than what you have done."

Asked what advice he would give to others on his 70th birthday, President Monson said: "I believe in the work ethic. I believe you are rewarded in proportion to the effort you put forth toward a particular endeavor. Let's say I'm talking to a student. I would tell that student: You're happier if you get good grades. You're happier if you know the lecture; if you know on the final exam how to answer the questions. But if you don't read the text and don't attend the lectures and you expect some heavenly help as you go in unprepared, you're liable to come away disappointed.

"I think effort must be made on the part of every person. I don't mean effort for self-aggrandizement. I mean effort in a good cause - truly loving the Lord, and loving your neighbor. Being busily engaged in the work of the Lord makes for a happier life.

"I would tell the youth not to neglect their testimonies nor their Church assignments. President N. Eldon Tanner often taught students in Edmonton, Canada, `If you will do your studying Monday through Saturday, and if you will on the Sabbath attend your religious duties, you'll do better in school than if you study seven days.' Many is the individual who can attest to its validity.

"Then I think I would tell the young people not to be too critical of themselves. Youth is a difficult time of life. We adults say, `Oh, what a wonderful time to live! You live at home, have meals on the table, money given for tuition. You should feel great!' But it's a period of great worry. They worry whether they're going to find the right companion. They worry whether they're going to get an invitation to the dance. They worry about what they're going to do for a living. Sometimes, they start finding fault with themselves. They wish their hair were brunette or blond, or fluffy, or that it weren't so coarse, or that their eyebrows were more attractive, or whatever. You can go right down the list.

"We should just move forward. We should realize that we're made in the image of God and, therefore, have the capacity beyond what anybody knows. We live only a fraction of our potential."

President Monson said that one of the things that has brought him the most joy is "feeling the nudge of the Lord, the promptings. When you respond to them, you discover that in a way you're answering someone's prayer. An example: Some years ago, I went to the hospital to visit my father, who was ill. On leaving his bedside, I hurriedly went to the elevator. We had a meeting at 8 o'clock in the temple, and I was in a hurry, but I just couldn't take that elevator when its doors opened. I wondered, `What am I to do?'

"A lady came out of a room and asked, Do you have a minute?' I didn't have a second. But her appeal was so tender that I said,Sure.' I went into the room. There was a dear woman who was having a hard time leaving this earth. The family was all assembled, crying. They said, `Will you give Mother a blessing and ask Heavenly Father that if it is her time that her wish might be granted, or if it isn't that her health might be restored?' Her son and I administered to the woman. Later, when I returned to my office, I received word that each one of the children kissed the mother and said goodbye. Then she slipped away. I didn't know any of them when I went into that room, but I knew then why I couldn't get on that elevator.

"I've had that happen to me all through my life to the extent that I try to keep the antennae up, and have no interference so there is clear communication. When I'm the recipient of that kind of blessing, I think of a little couplet, God's sweetest blessings always go by hands that serve Him here below.' (Living What We Pray For,' by Whitney Montgomery.) You develop an appreciation that Heavenly Father knows who you are. And He says, `Here, go do this for me.' I always thank Him. My only regret is that I don't have more time to do the many things we are called upon to do. I work hard. I work long. I hope I work effectively, but I never feel I have exhausted what I should be doing.

"I think the philosophy that I would express, whether speaking to older people or younger people, would be the same: I believe that we have a responsibility to be a good influence on others. David O. McKay said there is one thing no person can deny, and that is the effect of one's personal influence."

To enjoy a more rewarding life, President Monson said, "I think we ought to think cheerful thoughts. I think we ought to break into segments the responsibilities of the day so we don't let anything deter us. We should try to solve one thing at a time, give all our attention to that one item before us, and then move to the next. If we try to do seven or eight things at once, something is going to be neglected."

President Monson is equally comfortable with the elderly or the young. "I have been involved one way or another with the youth programs of the Church since I was 17 when I was called to serve as the activity counselor in MIA," he said. At age 22, he was called as bishop of a ward of 1,060 members, with 87 widows. "If we associate and communicate with youth, I think we absorb a little of their enthusiasm for life and their youthful perspective. I never tire of meeting young people. If I can do a little good that way, I want to do it. The same is true of old people. I am very mindful of old people. They feel abandoned sometimes. They feel disappointed when no one visits them."

He spoke of having taken a plant to the room of a frail woman in a nursing home. A friend commented that the woman would never know the plant was there and asked why he would go to such trouble. "But I would know it's there," President Monson replied.

Asked how he would like to be remembered, President Monson replied with a brief phrase that aptly captures the essence of his life: "I tried my best."

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