By Philip Turner
Our society really does not know what to do with its elderly citizens, and in consequence we are not sure of what to do with ourselves. To my mind, failure to provide a place for the wisdom of age is a gap in the fabric of our lives that exposes a terrible moral failure. Hubert Humphrey once said that the moral quality of a society can be measured by the way in which it treats those at the beginning of life, those at the end of life, and those in the shadows of life. By this measure we are not doing very well. A response is called for, and I have framed mine in the form of a question — Retirement: What might that be?
The question by design is ambiguous. It might be understood as a simple request for information, a definition of what it means to be retired. Or it might be taken as an enquiry. What might be made of retirement? This ambiguity is reflected in two common definitions: to retire is to “leave one’s job and cease to work, typically upon reaching the normal age for leaving employment” or to “withdraw to or from a particular place.”
Each of these definitions presents a particular set of problems. To leave one’s job and cease working is clear enough, but what then? Do we just disappear? In a way we do. Our society identifies people by their work and their income. When we no longer work, what do we say about ourselves? What does society say about us? Are we simply not workers? Are we “once workers” who are now full-time consumers? An answer to this question is suggested by the second definition. Retirees are people who have moved from one place to another, from one stage of life to another.
I do not wish to minimize the trauma of leaving the stage of life that has provided us with a social identity. Even if we are quite happy to be done with all that, we are nonetheless left at sea, with no compass. It really is not very satisfying to respond to “Who are you?” with “I’m retired.” That said, the second definition offers another form of life, one in which I am not defined by my job. The problem we face is that society has little guidance to give a person who has moved from the stage of life defined by work and reward to one that is more or less empty of social content. In moving from one stage to another, we have no map of how we are to proceed.
So we return to my question. The best our society can do is to say go forth from work and have fun — travel or play golf or spend your winters and summers in a more pleasant clime. Now these are not bad things to do. But a life devoted to pleasure in the end fails to satisfy. Indeed, a life given to pleasure destroys pleasure. How then are we to fill our last days? Since God both creates and governs time, I believe it entirely proper to provide an answer that is grounded in faith. Faith tells us that God gives the grace of time in each stage of our lives; but, at the last, are we not called upon to review our times (all of them), take their measure, and before all else give thanks?
Learning to give thanks for the various stages of our life is no easy task. Our instinct, when given time, is to focus on what we have done wrong. This is important, but self-criticism does not comprise the matter of prime importance before God. The matter of prime importance is recognition of how God has been with us through all our days, both good and bad, and to thank him. Through this practice, we might even learn, in our last days, to praise God for his goodness before we ask for his help. We have been created to know God, love him, enjoy him, and praise him. In the last stage of our lives, God provides for us an opportunity, by anticipation, to glimpse our final state: a life of praise and joy.
To see retirement in the light of God’s creation and governance of time reminds us that his will is to give rest from the striving and strife of life. As retired persons, we now have time that is ours to order. Our hours and days are no longer governed by the will of an employer or the nature of a job. We have time on our hands to enter a different form of life, one of contemplation rather than action. We have time to sit back and look at the world as it rushes by. To use a modern phrase, as retired persons we have time for mindfulness. We are free to create spaces in time wherein we are not acting into the world. Rather, we are sitting as receivers before the world in contemplation, sorrow, wonder, and thanksgiving.
To adopt the stance of one who looks, weeps, wonders, and gives thanks is made easier by one of the more painful aspects of retirement — the loss of gainful employment. In our society, retirement means that we are stripped of social position and recognition. We are, like it or not, shunted off to the side of life. It is hard at first, but being out of the fray offers the opportunity not only to take account of where we have injured others and ourselves but to see the good we have done and the many beautiful things we have missed because we were busy. It also provides an opportunity to take in the world around us. By looking, we learn, in the moment, to move happily and slowly in a small world made of family, friends, church suppers, and to care for both those we love and those at life’s edges. Retirement provides time to notice the world in which we live and to participate in it with a quiet, reflective, gentle, and thankful spirit.
The Rev. Philip Turner has served as a missionary, rector, and seminary professor and dean.