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by William H. Benson

November 6, 2014

     Billy Graham will celebrate another birthday this week, his ninety-sixth. As far as I know, he still lives, despite a lifetime of poor health: “hernias, retina clots, pleurisies, headaches, nauseas, removal of a salivary gland, urinary infections, ulcerative colitis, jaw abscesses, tumors on the forehead,” plus “cysts, polyps, infections, pneumonia, chronic high blood pressure, spider bites, and a series of falls that have broken eighteen of his ribs.” When he was twenty-six, he came down with the mumps.

     Today he suffers from respiratory problems, poor eyesight, a lack of strength, and Parkinson’s disease. Decades ago, he asked his associate T. W. Wilson, “Can you think of anything I’ve done in all my life, anything at all, to deserve these sicknesses?”

     He has outlived many of the 215 million people he preached to in 185 countries over a six-decade blazing evangelistic career. His mellifluous soloist, George Beverly Shea, passed away in April 2013, at 104, and the crusades’ song director, Cliff Barrows , is 91. On Billy’s team, longevity is the rule.

     Babies born in 2011 can expect to live an average of 77.9 years. Life expectancy at fifty is 30.9 years, but at ninety-five it is 3.2 years. The oldest person to live, and with documentation to prove it, was Jeanne Calmnet of Aryles, France, who passed away on August 5, 1997, at the age of 122 years, 164 days. She attributed her longevity to her unflappability, and her daily bicycle ride. She ate two pounds of chocolate every week, and smoked cigarettes until she was 117. 

     Animals live far shorter lives than human beings. The average lifespan for a dog or a cat is twelve years; for a baboon, polar bear, chimpanzee, gorilla, horse, or rhinoceros, it is twenty years; but only two animals—elephants and hippopotamuses—live an average of forty years. There are exceptions. A giant tortoise can live for 150 years.

     The dinosaurs ruled our planet for 135 million years. Countless generations lived, ate and digested their food, walked about Earth, stared at events that unfolded before them, as their hearts beat inside them, and then they too died. Researchers estimate that the herbivores may have lived as much as seventy years, but that the smaller carnivores, such as Tyrannosaurus Rex, lived only twenty years.

     But it must have been a pitiless and heartless existence in the wild, as it still is for most animals. Infections in wounds and diseases caused by viruses and bacteria produced as much pain and suffering as they do now. The meat-eaters had to attack, kill, and devour other dinosaurs, if they would live another day, and so cruelty was ever-present.

     As far as we know, no animal comprehends its own mortality. Members of each species live unaware that they too will die. Only human beings are blessed, or cursed, by the knowledge or their imminent demise; hence the need for religion.

     For what purpose does any plant or animal live? I say that it is Earth’s free gift to all that live: plants, trees, dogs, cats, men, and women. Indeed, it is a privilege to walk about Earth, to breathe its air, to meet others, to see with our eyes. It is Earth’s gift to each, bound up deep inside a creature’s DNA.

     A writer in the New York Times wrote last week, “At least here on Earth, things just don’t naturally work out so that people get what they deserve. If there is such a thing as divine justice, the world we live in is not the place to find it. Instead, the events of human life unfold in a fair and just manner only when individuals and society work hard to make this happen.”

     Millions of turkeys will die this month so that we might live another day. For them, life is not fair.

     Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The years teach much which the days never knew. It takes a good deal of time to eat or to sleep, and a very little time to entertain a hope and an insight which becomes the light of our life.”

     For Billy Graham that light appeared when he was fifteen, the night he attended an evangelistic service in Charlotte, North Carolina. He knew his purpose then and never veered from it. If he had played a piano, he would have tapped on middle C again and again. Why change to other keys on the piano? He claimed he found the best, and so he stuck to it. Constant to a fault, his story never changed.

     One biographer said of Billy, “He has seemed unable to cease, to relent from that almost manic urgency to spend himself on and on before great crowds in distant places: it has continued to propel him on almost blindly.” As a result he lived most of his life on jets and in hotel rooms. His wife Ruth joked, “When Billy gets to heaven, he will expect to check into a hotel room.”

     One of his critics, Harold Bloom, said of Billy, “He does little harm; he does little good. He has remained a fifties period piece, bound to that decade’s vision of a prosperous, well-scrubbed America.”

And that comment, I think, is unfair. No one can take away from Billy Graham the extraordinary and phenomenal success he enjoyed for sixty years, preaching his religious vision across the world.

     Throughout the last half of the twentieth century, he was omnipresent. After Bill Clinton became president, he said, “Everywhere I go in the world, Billy Graham has already been there.”