Highlights from Recent Reading — Retirement

(Somewhat) coincidentally, a month after retiring, I read Learn to Grow Old, by Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier. All of the quotes in this post are from that book. It was written in 1972 and displays some unfounded optimism about the future betterment of society, but still, it includes a lot of good stuff. Much of it I’m not dealing with—yet. But it’s always good to be prepared.

The general social atmosphere in which we are immersed from childhood and which influences us without even our thinking clearly about it, teaches us the superior importance of work. It has taught us to look upon work as a duty, unlike the pleasurable activities of leisure. Work, as a duty, is seen to be full of dignity, even if it is tedious or inhuman; in fact it is considered especially meritorious in this latter case. Whereas leisure is constantly undervalued, despite its attractiveness and its ability to develop the personality. It is thought of merely as a concession to man’s guilty passions, to his lust for pleasure and his idleness. What confers dignity upon man is the fulfillment of his duty—his work, his productivity, his function in society, his professional occupation. If your work is interesting, you are lucky, but its only true value lies in its being a duty, not in its being a pleasure.

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One can understand … in connection with the status of the old in our society, that what matters most is to rediscover the notion of the indefeasible dignity of the human being. That, I believe, is the core of the problem of retirement since retirement is by definition the end of occupational work; and modern man does not feel that anyone is interested in him as a person. He is considered merely as an instrument of production.

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In our society everything points to the primacy of utilitarian work over other activities which are chosen not out of duty, but from inclination. Our modern outlook is dominated by this idea. … There is no question of turning man away from action. Action is his very nature. Quite, but what action? The utilitarian toil imposed by authority? Or the action that is freely chosen by pleasure? That is where the great social prejudice comes in. It is activity, not work, which is fundamental to living. The notorious advice to “work first, play later,” which we meet in various forms, suggests a false distinction between work-activity and leisure-activity. In particular it suggests that work is more important than leisure.

There is a certain association of ideas between leisure, idleness, laziness, pleasure, depravity and sin. We find it very strongly in the mind of many of our patients who suffer from an “enjoyment forbidden” complex. But it floats vaguely at the back of the minds of many others as well.  Hence the guilt that lies heavy on leisure. Leisure still has something solitary and shameful about it. The time one devotes to it is stolen from work-time, as a result of weakness, selfishness, or an unholy desire for pleasure. Retired people still retain something of this feeling of guilt about leisure, even though they no longer have a duty to work at their jobs.

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To prize leisure to the detriment of work would be to fall into the opposite error. In reality the value is in the man, not in the activity. Everything that contributes towards the lifelong harmonious development of the person derives its value from the performance of that function. Viewed in this light, work and leisure are two complementary factors. Work brings development in depth because of the specialization it requires. leisure counterbalances it with development in breadth because of the diversity of the interests it cultivates.

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I have said enough about the pleasure I have always had in manual work, in reading, and in all kinds of leisure activities, for me not to be suspected of underestimating their attraction. But if such activities have to occupy the whole of every day throughout the year, they will no longer be leisure occupations, but means of filling in time. The word “leisure” always suggests, to my mind, relaxation, rest, do-as-you-please, spontaneity and the inalienable right to do nothing. At least it means the right to do what one likes, without having a bad conscience about it, for no other reason than that one enjoys it. But at the same time it implies doing the thing for a proper and limited period of time. One relaxes from some other activity, one seeks distraction and rest from something else. If leisure lasts all the time, then it loses the sharp tang of pleasure, and takes on the stale smell of emptiness.

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Routine! There you have public enemy number one. … One ages prematurely in a routine existence. There are people who are already little old men at thirty or forty, because their lives are restricted by routine. What will become of them when retirement comes and deprives them of their sole motive force—professional duty? They will sink into boredom and passivity. We can see a vicious circle here, as in all domains of life: routine causes aging, and this premature ageing buries the individual all the deeper in routine. On the other hand, to stay open throughout our lives to a multiplicity of interests is to prepare for ourselves a lasting youth and a retirement free from boredom.

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Life is a task to be accomplished. But who can claim that he has accomplished his task, that he has finished his task? The task always remains unfinished. The particular acceptance I am referring to here is perhaps one of the most difficult to achieve: it is acceptance of fulfillment, acceptance of the unfulfilled.

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It is the very idea of success which gradually loses its straightforward aspect. There are many successes, and at the time we appreciate them as if they were definitive. But success retreats, and escapes us. It itself is limited, unfulfilled. When one comes to the end … a man’s life, it’s nothing much. … In order to know the joy of growing old, one must be able to accept the unfulfilled.

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When one is young one dreams of being able someday to do all that one has not yet been able to do. The older one gets, the deeper lies the immeasurable gulf between that dream and reality.

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Accepting one’s life, one’s age, one’s body, one’s sex, accepting as they are one’s parents, one’s marriage partner, one’s children: accepting afflictions, illness, infirmity, bereavements; accepting one’s self, one’s own character, one’s failures and one’s faults. All that filled my first book.

A friend had devoted a benevolent article to it, but cunningly slipped in at the end a question which disturbed me: “Must we really accept everything? Are there not many people who are too passive, and who ought to be urged to break a yoke that is weighing them down?

My country, Switzerland, in love with liberty, was born out of the rebellion of the first Confederates against a foreign tyranny, symbolized by the legend of William Tell. What, then, could I say? That man reveals his greatness in rebellion, and his wisdom in acceptance? That would be absurd! Is there not often wisdom in rebellion and greatness in acceptance? Where, then, was the dividing line to be drawn, between legitimate revolt and fruitful acceptance? …

It is only with caution and reserve that I can attempt to formulate a reply, since my answer will necessarily be an over-simplification. Life always overflows and confounds our simple formulae. Nevertheless, I must say where I stand. What revolts me is the injustice and constraint that originate in men; what imposes respect upon me is Nature. Thus, among the ills of the aged, there are some that come from men, from their prejudices, from their lack of love, from their contempt, from the way society is organized and its inequity. Against all this I shall fight without respite. But there are others which come from Nature, and fighting against the laws of Nature only brings fresh suffering.

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There are always two movements: first, a natural, spontaneous, necessary rebellion against what affects us. The glance is averted. But there may be a second movement, a movement of acceptance, a sort of reconciliation with ourselves, when we perceive that rebellion involves a divorce between our reality and us. In prayer … we see what we would not, or could not see; we can look it in the face and accept it. Otherwise, a terrible vicious circle is set up. Rebellion brings more rebellion, the fiction is consolidated and return to reality becomes increasingly difficult. Thus the dilemma is accentuated until old age and its afflictions come—and old age is no matter of chance, it is natural and inevitable, and its afflictions not small.

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Old age is indeed hard for the majority of people, and very hard for some. it must be said in all honesty. it is in fact one of those realities which must be looked at in the face.

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It is the whole of life which is a preparation for death, and I do not see how I can prepare myself any differently today than at any other time. Death is not a project, and it is not my reality. What concerns me today, for the meaning of life seems to me to always be the same, from one end to the other—to allow oneself to be led by God. Detach myself from the world? That would be to run away from my own reality. To empty this time that God still gives me in this world in order to fill it with meditation on death, would for me, be to give up the belief that my life as it is today has a meaning.

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Many people make a contrast between the world and God, between the attraction of the world and attachment to God, as if it were necessary to lose interest in the world and in life in order to be interested in God. … It is because of God that I am interested in the world, because He made it, and put me in it. I do not see why I should be any less interested in it now than when I was young. One can life for God from one’s youth up, and that, I have no doubt, is the best preparation for old age.

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A sentence from St. Paul will help me define my thoughts. It is well-known: “Though this outer man our ours may be falling into decay, the inner man is renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). That is indeed a message for us old folk. There is indeed something which is destroyed, and which must be accepted—our physical strength, our aptitude for action in the world outside. But St. Paul’s inner man is not at all a disembodied being which indulges in ecstasies and  has no interest in the world. That would be to understand and interpret him quite wrongly.  he experienced ecstasies all right, and when he was young! And they certainly did not turn him away from the world—they trust him into it. That engagement in the world characterizes his “inner man” which is renewed day by day. He does not disengage himself, he does not resign. his inner self is not withdrawn into indifference—on the contrary, it is a presence in the world.

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I used to do many things a few years ago which I cannot or must not do now; and I do tings now which I shall no longer be able to do in a few years’ time. It is true, there is a diminution in old age, a “minus.”

But this limitation of life does not in the least imply resignation. All the renunciations demanded by old age are in the field of action, not in that of the heart and mind. They belong to the order of “doing,” not that of “being.” I live differently, but not less. Life is different, but it is still fully life—even fuller, if that were possible. My interest and participation in the world is not diminishing, but increasing.

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What is the significance of this in practical terms? It signifies a redirection of ambition. To renounce all ambition would not be sublimation but repression; it would be a sort of premature death, but ambition is one of the essential characteristics of life. Ambition, however, can be redirected from one object on to another. Instead of having an ambition to be powerful through the rank or office one occupies, through the right to give orders or make judgments which it confers, one may have an ambition to be powerful in oneself, through one’s own person, through the spontaneous and infectious quality that emanates from what one is in oneself. This is no longer an ambition for hierarchical authority, but ambition for a quite personal moral authority, no longer constraining, but open-hearted and free.

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The sublimation of the instinct or power brings about a radical change in the scale of human values. From then on a man’s value is judged not by what he does, but by what he is, not by the position he occupies or by his titles, but by his personal maturity, by his breadth of mind, by his inner life, by the quality of his love for others, and by the intrinsic, and not the market, value of what he brings into the world.

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Living [for the Lord] means living every detail of my daily life in that light. It does not mean detaching myself from the world and from those immediate concerns which give a meaning to my life. I do not have to deny or oppose these provisional meanings of my life, but I shall be able to distinguish the transcendent meaning in every provisional meaning. Where is God leading me in these daily events, in this ardour to achieve a goal that He has implanted in my heart, in this success, in this failure, in this joy or this sorrow, in this affliction or this healing, this friendship or this rebellion, this light or this darkness? [I now seek] the divine meaning in everything that happens to me, a familiarity with God which brings Him into my life at every moment. It asks what is God expecting of me, here and now.

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That is the detachment necessary to a happy old age. It means the liberation of one’s will … We are always going back to our old ways; but God seizes us anew in His powerful hand, and constrains us to surrender. This surrender, incomplete though it may be, prepares us for old age, in which our capacity for action declines.

What I was giving up was my claim to act in accordance with my own will, in order to allow myself to be led as much as possible by God. This decision brings considerable relaxation of tension, especially in the case of anyone as anxious by nature as I am. And this relaxation is greater still when God, through old age, relieves me of various responsibilities which He had laid upon me. It is also the answer to the problem of the “unfulfilled” … We can surrender to God all the worry about the things we have left uncompleted.

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Who can deny that the meaning of life is death, since it is a journey whose final destination is death?

Now the meaning of death is the religious question par exellence. Does there exist something other than the visible world in which we are enclosed from birth to death? Something which transcends death, which sets beyond death the destination of the journey of life? My old age has meaning, I can live through it with my gaze still fixed before me, and not behind me, because I am on my way to a destination beyond death.

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[We can achieve] a quite different type [of victory] through the faith that is grafted onto [our] anxiety. I must explain what I mean by this quite different kind of victory. It means accepting anxiety as an inescapable constituent element in our human nature, instead of imaging that we can every free ourselves from it. Idealist philosophies such as that of Plato, or cynical philosophies like that of the Stoics, or again, naturalist philosophies like that of the Epicureans and that of the Freudians, are all to some extent a response to this utopian desire to eliminate anxiety. Christianity is much more realistic. Christ Himself experienced the anxiety of death, so that He sweated blood and cried out from the Cross: “My God, My God, why have you deserted me?” (Matthew 27:46). So far did He share our human nature.

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Christian faith … does not involve repressing one’s anxiety in order to appear strong. On the contrary, it means recognizing one’s weakness, accepting the inward truth about oneself, confessing one’s anxiety, and still to believe; that is to say that the Christian puts his trust not in his own strength, but in the grace of God.

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Some anxiety will remain, conscious or not, especially in the face of death. … I believe that there is more peace to be found in the acceptance of human anxiety than in the hope for a life or an old age freed from anxiety. Death remains a fearful and cruel monster. The Bible says that it will be the last enemy to be overcome (1 Corinthians 15:26). Jesus Himself overcame it only by accepting it and accepting its anxiety.

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Old age is often spoken of as a school of detachment which ought to prepare us for death.  For all that, we must distinguish between detachment from things and detachment from persons. … This turning-point means a detachment from things only in favor of a wider, deeper, and more welcoming opening of the heart to people. However detached we may be from things, death remains a harsh wrench because it brutally ruptures the bonds that attach us to people, bonds which become stronger in old age.

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The whole of the Bible … in fact shows us man as journeying in the shadow of death, as suffering from a disease, or, as the New Testament prefers to put it, suffering from a weakness which is already an anticipation of death. Death does not come upon man like a natural disaster. It is bound up with his most intimate existence, his existence before God. … It remains so, in a certain sense, even after his justification, for though by faith in Christ, a new being … is born in him and escapes from death (John 11:25), the old man … continues to lead its mortal existence, to be, in St. Paul’s words, a “body of death” (Romans 7:24).

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[This is] is as it were a provisional world in which God has placed me for the sake of my personal training. My home is in heaven. And the more I have advanced in age, the more has earthly life seemed to me like an apprenticeship in the love and the knowledge of God.

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The Bible is realistic in its treatment of old age, and does not try to hide its sufferings. But the Bible also shows the total contrast between old age without God and old age with God. It is the personal bond with God established by faith which transfigures old age.

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Eternal life does not begin after death but … we start living it now; only it is masked by our daily cares, and it is only on contact with death, perhaps, that we discover it. God is not a God of the dead, but of the living, since for Him they are all living. Which … fills me wiht joy, despite the sadness.

Eternal life does indeed begin on this earth. To live with God is to share in His everlastingness. He who has one foot in the infinite can accept his finiteness. And this decisive step, this birth into eternal life, can be made well before old age and the approach of death.

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The anxiety of death is not about going to sleep; it is rather about not waking up again. On this point the gospel is clear and categorical. Our resurrection is promises, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the pledge of it. St. Paul made no  mistake about it when he exclaimed in the face of his contradictors: “If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

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