THERE WAS a singing commercial often repeated on a favorite radio station recently. As a commercial it was a failure, for I am unable to recall what it was I was supposed to buy or do, but after hearing it for the tenth time, I began to listen to the words. They were intriguing. The song pushed a theme: "The difference is you." It went on to tell me what a fascinating feller I am; how I have a plan to live my life in "my own special way," how I have ideals, how different I am from all you others.

Gosh! It really was speaking to me. Yes, yes, I am that marvelously unique person. There is no one else like me. The way I live is special, not at all the way you live.

But then, being basically honest (as well as trustworthy, loyal, friendly and kind to dumb animals) I had to ask myself if the singing commercial really was my song.

Do have "a plan for living my own special way"? Well, not really. I try to keep my head above water financially, but without thinking about it too much or too well. My house is not that different from others on our street. The children are grown now and they are nice kids, but none turned out as planned. Like most men, married the girl next door and there wasn't much planning in that, either. That is, did not make a survey of all available girls before making my choice; it was just luck that I lived next to the brightest and best.

Looking back on my life, it seems that most of the things that happened to me, from my parents (who gave me few choices) to a couple of wars in which I was expected to participate, to a series of jobs determined by the needs and desires of corporations who happened to hire me, have not been the result of careful planning -- at least not on my part.

We once placed our son in a private school where, at enormous cost, he could live in pigsty rooms, never bathe, wear disreputable clothing and acquire a third-rate high school education. He proclaimed himself an individualist, quite different not only from his parents but from all others in the contemporary world. It was in the 1960s and he was a conscientious objector, and an atheist who believed in what used to be called free love. He aspired to be a poet. I looked about the school at coeval students: all were children of reasonably affluent parents, all dressed like skid row bums, and all the boys: were conscientious objectors, hungry for sex, careless of religion, and all dreamed of becoming rock musicians, poets, actors or members of some equally absurd profession.

I once so far lost control of myself as to suggest that if he really wanted to be different he should clean up his room, take a shower every day, wear a three-piece suit and aspire to be a saintly stockbroker. He was not amused. His plan for living in his own special way was mostly negative: He was against the draft, against the war in Vietnam, against all educational institutions and against the capitalistic system. He was, however, in favor of the ERA -- and his girlfriend washed his socks and underclothes once a week. He had ideals.

The song told me: "You have ideals!" Do I? Like my son, I had plenty when I was young. They were about the same as his. Idealism is a find thing. We all appreciate that. We all -- all who are approaching or have passed 50 -- associate it with youth. We elders of the nation have discarded our ideals, or most of them (unless our name is Ralph Nader), and in their place we have some principles by which we try to live. And if we live long enough, we know that the best e can do is try. Probably no man is mature until he has failed himself at least once. It is when a man first fails to live up to his own image that he begins to ripen. (Too many failures and he rots.) I say "men" because I do not know if this is true of women. I find women inscrutable.

So I don't have a plan for living any special way -- at least not a workable plan -- and I no longer harbor those grand, glorious ideals. I guess the song was not really directed at me, but to some other, finer, better men, or maybe only women. Perhaps that's why I can't remember the commercial sponsor.