In memory of my dear friend Lord Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks.
“How nice it is to do nothing and afterwards to take a rest.” (Dutch proverb)
As I watch some of my friends entering retirement, I realize how dangerous it is to “take it easy” and fall into the pit of idleness, thinking that one is at the peak of one’s life while one may very well be at its lowest point. Retirement can be a real killer, and surviving its hazards is an art.
“I am Retired Leisure. I am to be met with in trim gardens. I am already come to be known by my vacant face and careless gesture, perambulating at no fixed pace, nor with any settled purpose.
I walk about; not to and from.” (1)
True, I admit that retirement has its benefits. “Dismiss the old horse in good time lest he fail in the list and make spectators laugh”, said Horace. Few men are able to make a graceful exit at the appropriate time. Most fail miserably because they retire either too early or too late.
Still, its dangers are not to be dismissed. It can be a recipe for becoming aged before one is old. Millions of people long for immortality but don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Boredom is an overall experience for many elderly people who never learned in their youth to live a life of great meaning and now consider themselves too old to find one.
They “keep themselves busy.” Having nothing of real substance to do, yet aware that this is disastrous, they look for ways to keep themselves going. Often, people find various activities so as to escape what they should really be doing. An example of this is reading. Most people read not because they want to advance their knowledge, but because they want to be distracted. They seek to be entertained and forget their daily duties. This desire, of course, has its place and can be most beneficial, but once a person’s day is filled with this, it becomes a recipe for disaster. “Keeping oneself busy” becomes a disguise for the shame of admitting that one is really awaiting death. Many tombstones should bear the epitaph: “Died at the age of 18, buried at the age of 92.”
In our retirement homes we entertain the elderly by way of recreation, hobbies and games. While this may be of some benefit, it is hardly the way to deal with old age, and certainly not at a time when people may be slow but are still relatively healthy. After all, we send a subconscious message that people who are retired are also retarded. It is a trivialization of human existence to return people to the days of their childhood when they needed to be entertained.
Indeed, retirement involves the problem of what to do with private time. We know what to do with objects, even with people, but we hardly know what to do with ourselves. For most people, old age and retirement often arrive with a jolt. We are not ready. There are no official classes during our youth to prepare us for this stage of our lives. As a result, many stop dreaming and are devoid of any ambition. Some even start apologizing that they are still alive.
We need to become aware of the chance for rebirth that accompanies retirement. We will be able to throw off the shackles of boredom, which so many of us encounter while at work making money to stay alive. Retirement offers countless opportunities for spiritual growth. In no way should our free time be filled simply with entertainment or even hobbies. These have their place, but they should never become the focus of our new lives. Retirement offers the rare opportunity to really get to work; to stop being the regular guy; to become someone special. It is a time for new visions and new dreams. It is a period when we can attain lofty values, try and achieve midot tovot (sublime characteristics). We are by now rich in perspective, aware of the pitfalls of failure, and we have insights that we missed in our youth. Above all, we now have the time to train in undoing the follies that have become habit throughout our lives. “Nothing gives rest but the sincere search for truth.” (2)
Suddenly, we have time to pray with more kavanah, to go to synagogue without having to rush or feel fatigued. We can study Torah to our heart’s content. We are given the opportunity to learn the art of true spiritual living and have ample time to do chesed (kindness) with our fellow human beings.
We were handicapped, but are no longer. Until now, we drove around in our mental wheelchairs, which glued us to our daily boredom. Now we can get up, stand on our own two feet and actually walk. We are no longer losing time, but rather gaining it. We have the opportunity to enjoy and make use of every second that is given to us. We are no longer “walking to”; our walk is one of celebration. Every step we take is the goal itself, instead of rushing to a place and taking no notice of where we are going or what we see along the way. We can stop “wasting” our time because we have lots of it. It is a time when we don’t have to prove ourselves in the spectacle of human endeavors. We are in a state of being and becoming. The many pressing demands from without have diminished and we can therefore tend to our spiritual demands from within.
But all of this requires re-education. We must break away from dogmatic attitudes, which dictate that people in their old age are educationally dead, unmovable and too tired to create a revolution in themselves. The reverse is true. With all their years of experience they are able to cash in as never before. Nothing is more dangerous to retirement than retiring.
Since its earliest days, Jewish Tradition has instilled in people a healthy anticipation for retirement. It has created in its followers an “early retirement plan” by giving them a taste of its joy while they are still young. The celebration of Shabbat is a great example. On that day, man already lives a life of meaningful retirement. It is a day of contemplation and prayer; of meals during which one discusses not finances but matters of spirituality; of Torah study; of what life is really all about. He even learns how to live without a car so that when the time comes to retire from this vehicle he will be able to not only endure it but to actually enjoy it! On Shabbat he unlearns his dependence on all instruments of technology, which in his later years he may no longer be able to use. By that time, when his sexual libido has waned, he has already learned that marriage is much more than just a physical relationship, since in his younger years he had to observe the laws of family purity, which taught him to love his wife even when he could not touch her. (3)
All in all, retirement is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to start living. So, spread the word and live accordingly!
How old would you be if you did not know how old you are?
(1) Charles Lamb, Last Essays of Elia, ‘The Superannuated Man’ (1833).
(2) Blaise Pascal, Pensées, No. 907.
(3) Judaism requires husband and wife to separate for about twelve days after the start of the woman’s monthly menstrual cycle.
This publication was made possible with the support of the Louis and Dina Van de Kamp Foundation, August 2020.