Retirement: “To die but not to perish”
By George Wolfe
Retirement is about relationship. That’s what I’ve learned during the transition from controlling, narcissistic academic to “golden ager.” It is a time to let go of grudges and political battles so we can be freed from the power they have over us. This is one purpose of those familiar teachings of forgiveness, atonement and “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Everything changes. The old must step aside to make way for the visions of the younger generation. If you don’t accept that, sooner or later, death will do it for you. It’s far better to die and be reborn in the process, letting go of ego attachment so you can discard your self-constructed façade and redefine your life. As it says in the Tao Te Ching: “To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.”
A favorite Hasidic story of mine tells of a rabbi who was seated along side a street watching people pass by. Soon an older man walks by at a hurried pace, burdened by the load of goods he was carrying. Seeing his distress, the rabbi asks him: “Sir, what are you doing?”
The man, looking at the rabbi with contempt, replies, “I’m pursuing my livelihood!”
The rabbi responds: “How do you know it is out in front of you? Perhaps it is behind you, and all you need to do is be still.” Retirement is about being still and listening to your inner voice, so your livelihood can catch up to you!
One of the more bewildering passages in the gospels is the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree (Matt. 21:20). When passing by a fig tree with his disciples, he noticed the tree was not bearing fruit. This was to be expected since the tree was not in season. But Jesus cursed the tree anyway for not being productive.
Since ancient times, the seasons have been a metaphor for the four stages of life, these being youth, symbolized by spring, middle-age, symbolized by summer, retirement which is represented by autumn, and old age being the season of winter. It is in the summer of life that a person typically “bears fruit,” advancing one’s career and accumulating wealth to provide for one’s family and dependents.
Once we enter the fall season of life, we are, as if, “out of season.” But this story is telling us we must not be like the fruitless fig tree. Rather, we must find new ways to contribute to society and “bear fruit,” lest we be cursed with cynicism and, in our frustration, see the human condition as hopeless.
I have seen this cynicism overtake men my age, many of whom are retired. Cynicism stifles growth and positive community activism. To avoid the curse of cynicism, we must continue to serve humanity using whatever gifts we have been given.
This effort includes reviving forgotten friendships, which for me included looking up a woman named Allison Porter. She and I met in high school on a European tour as members of a nationally selected concert band.
While sorting through the slides of my trip, I found her picture, which revived the feelings I had for her at the time. I recall that we traded a few letters after our tour, but soon I stopped writing. There seemed little chance our relationship could survive. After all, I lived in Pennsylvania and she was from Idaho. I was Presbyterian whereas she was a Mormon.
I decided to Google her name and discovered what she had written about her life for a class reunion in 2002. There was an entire history I had missed out on. But when I scrolled down further, I saw that I was reading part of her obituary. Allison died of cancer in 2004.
Share life’s precious moments and keep in touch with your friends. It won’t be long before they’re gone.
George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus at Ball State University and former Director and Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He also chairs the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and is the author of Meditations on Mystery: Science, Paradox and Contemplative Spirituality.