Shy of Retiring
Graeme Hunter on the Tensions Between Pensions & Treasures in Heaven
Shakespeare certainly warned against it. Against retirement, I mean. His greatest tragedy, King Lear, could be subtitled “The Tragical History of Early Retirement.” You remember how, at the outset of the play, Lear confesses that retirement is his “darker purpose.” He intends first to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Then:
True, he little guesses how black the sequel to his dark purpose will be. For he is “a foolish, fond old man,” and “ever has but slenderly known himself.” But his adviser and friend, the Earl of Kent, glimpses the evil of his planned retirement from the beginning. Kent first urges Lear to reconsider, and then, when that fails, seeks to re-enter the service of the now powerless king.
Even out of office, Kent tells Lear, he retains that one quality needed to make power legitimate and the realm secure. Lear still has authority. Born to be king, his authority is not only innate, but inalienable.
He should never have tried to depute it to others. Nature cries out against it. That reckless gesture will spell calamity for himself and for the realm.
In many jurisdictions retirement is still mandatory, while in a growing number it no longer is. But nobody takes the side of the angels.
For all parties, the question turns on the alleged “rights” and “needs” of the person contemplating retirement. Everyone should have the right to retire, both sides agree. But many think we should also have the right not to retire, if our financial needs (or even just our wants) preclude it.
Both sides agree that everyone would retire if there were no financial need to continue working. Only exceptionally fortunate people with jobs that provide great personal satisfaction put off retirement.
The only real difference of opinion in the retirement debate is whether or not these lucky ones should be forced to retire. Some feel they should. They fear that unless everyone has to retire, the most vulnerable won’t be allowed to.
Man is thought to be a lazy beast. Just as the normal state for mere material objects is to be at rest, so unemployment is natural for man. Stones don’t roll anywhere unless something pushes them. Neither do we work unless external force is applied. For most people, of necessity, that force will always be a stick; for the fortunate few, it is a carrot. But we’d all be better off if nothing ever needed to be done.
Now by this reasoning, and given the fact that we all must work for a good part of our lives, it follows that we should be very serious about our retirement. Most people are. Some are out of the rat race by 50 or 55. We applaud them. But why are there some people fighting to stay on past 65?
The reason is usually money. Something we also understand. Often, older people need money because they are still supporting dependents. In the past, these dependents would likely be grown but handicapped children, or orphaned grandchildren. But that was before widespread abortion. These days, the dependents are more likely to be elderly parents.
Old people just won’t die anymore. Years pass, and their inadequate pensions and insufficient savings don’t pay the bills. So their fully employed but cash-strapped offspring have to get involved. The longevity of the parents is visited upon the children.
Our Invisible Ledger
Lillian Rubin had an insightful article about this problem recently in the journal Dissent. It focused on the financial burden borne by children of elderly parents and ran under the title, “Hey folks, you’re spending my inheritance.”
She reminded us of the generation that grew up with the idea they were going to inherit a bundle from their boomer parents, but now are beginning to realize the old boomers may be around too long for that. They had it all in life, and now they’re going to take it all with them.
“You go from knowing you’ll inherit money from your parents to wondering how you’re going to support them,” one distressed man told Rubin. Another told her he is standing “with an invisible ledger in his brain,” weighing what he once stood to inherit against the staggering cost of health care for the elderly. A third asks, “When is it my turn to be old?”
The people Rubin interviewed were understandably ashamed of such calculating thoughts, yet candid enough to admit to them. Filial duty is rapidly being, in the cant phrase, reinvented. The caregiving generation is also wondering who will look after them in their retirement and concluding, with Rubin, that the right answer is probably “nobody.”
Their candor, at least, is admirable. Let me emulate it and admit to having all the thoughts they mention. I watch my nonagenarian (but still physically healthy) mother’s savings evaporate year by year and have dark thoughts. I don’t discuss them. I’m ashamed of them. But they are there. I’m only glad there are also other thoughts.
For instance there is Shakespeare, denying I have any claim on her money. And furthermore insisting that she, and anyone else who is dear to me, has an undeniable claim on mine. In As You Like It, the old servant Adam, a man of “almost fourscore years,” will not stand idly by while Orlando, the son of his former master, is in distress. “I have five hundred crowns,” he tells Orlando,
Adam seems to have misplaced, perhaps never known, the bitter ledger on which Lillian Rubin’s disappointed heirs calculate their losses. He expects no inheritance and offers even his own retirement savings to rescue his former master’s son. “Take that,” he tells Orlando,
Retirement being now out of the question, Adam only asks to be taken once again into service. “Though I look old, yet I am strong and lusty,” he says. “I’ll do the service of a younger man in all your business and necessities.”
Orlando is of course touched by the graciousness of this servant. For it is none other than the grace of that second Adam, the suffering servant, Jesus Christ, in whose very language Adam expresses his hope.
Betting with Shakespeare
But these Shakespearian considerations get little attention in the debates about retirement. Imagine someone suggesting that we have a moral obligation to work as long as we are physically or mentally capable of it. He would be called a shrill, unfeeling curmudgeon.
Or perhaps, swept up by the winsomeness of ancient Adam, he says that we should liquidate our whole retirement fund for granny. Would he not seem a fool?
Neither pathos nor beauty moves us in these personal and existential questions. We know that tragic consequences can follow if we “shake all cares and business from our age,” and act as if there were no one to consider but ourselves. And we recognize what a lovely thing it is “when service sweats for duty, not for meed [reward].”
But we don’t bet with Shakespeare in life. That would be taking chances.
But Shakespeare isn’t backing down. Don’t be so hasty to retire, he says.
He takes the matter up even more fully in another of his best plays, The Tempest. The protagonist there is Prospero, who, like Lear, brought disaster on himself and his people by trying to retire. He was the rightful duke of Milan who abdicated out of love for “the liberal arts.” White magic was his passion.
His library, he said, “was dukedom large enough.” He was probably not the first magus naive enough to suppose that he could entrust the drudgery of ruling to someone else (in the event, it was his brother Antonio) while retaining in retirement the perks of office for himself.
Unsurprisingly, Antonio formed other plans. Prospero and his infant daughter Miranda end up marooned on a Mediterranean island. Exile, however, turns out to be just the tutor the duke needed, and he in turn instructs Miranda.
When both are educationally ripe, Providence brings the usurping Antonio to the island. By his enchantments Prospero is able to lead his brother to recognize his fault, relinquish his dukedom, and permit Prospero to take up once more the title and burdens he should never have laid down.
The chastened Prospero sees the folly of retirement. Almost his last word in the play is that he is retiring, not from Milan but “to it.” Only death, God’s indisputable pink slip, will now be able to separate him from his appointed office. And “every third thought,” he says, “shall be my grave.”
All that to say that I find myself with mixed feelings about retirement. I have a little money in a retirement savings plan; I expect to get a small pension. I think about these things and worry about my mother’s dwindling resources. Realistic thoughts: petty, persistent.
On the other hand is Shakespeare, whose words, like a breeze from the sea, are calling me to life on a larger scale. Be Kent, they say. Be Prospero! Be Adam!
Retirement plans are simple and demoralizing. Shakespearean intimations are impossible but exhilarating. It’s a standoff.
Or it was, until I read Pope Benedict’s discussion of the first Beatitude in his recent Jesus of Nazareth. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says according to Matthew. But Luke has him saying, “Blessed are the poor.” Never mind. Poverty is not “a purely material phenomenon.” The two Gospels mean the same. They mean that “God’s poor” are blessed.
They are the people who recognize that they depend ultimately and completely on God. They do not “stride into God’s presence as if they were partners able to engage with him on an equal footing.” They may be poor as church mice, or they may dispose of considerable resources.
Applying the Lesson
The important thing about God’s poor for present concerns is that they don’t retire. They “accept with humility the task of their secular profession and its requirements, wherever they happen to be, while directing their whole life to that deep communion with Christ that [St.] Francis showed us. ‘To own goods as if you owned nothing.’”
Let me see if I can apply the lesson a little more fully to retirement. I think to have learned from Benedict that God’s kingdom runs parallel to the kingdom of retirement, though it is accessed differently. We access retirement by saving money, but the kingdom of God by giving it away. We retire by crawling unburdened toward death, but hobble into God’s kingdom cheerfully carrying our cross.
Retirement plans can comfort our old age, but so can he who providently caters to the sparrow. The big choice is there. You can make it. St. Francis did.
And God is the waiting Father. He will help you even if, like me, in the dim light of your faith, all you can manage is one wavering step toward the Kingdom.
Lillian Rubin’s article can be found at http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=887.
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“Shy of Retiring” first appeared in the December 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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