Models for the future
(Page 4 of 4)
Beyond the future of retirement as a social and economic institution there is the future of retirement as an individual venture, and adventure. "I dare more as I grow older," Montaigne wrote in one of his essays. T. S. Eliot wrote, "Old men ought to be explorers." The model of Ulysses has been adopted as an example of a mature frontiersman, by Tennyson among others: "'Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows. . ."Skip to next paragraph
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The world adopted Sir Francis Chichester when, at 70, he did just that, sailing around the world alone.
The creativity of older individuals has been acknowledged. Writing of Samuel Johnson, Robert Louis Stevenson marveled: "Think of that superb indifference to mortal limitation that set him upon his dictionary and carried him through triumphantly until the end."
Cervantes was well past the age of retirement by the time he finished "Don Quixote."
Hayden wrote his oratorio "The Creation" in his mid-60s.
Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" would not be complete if he had quit at the arbitrary age of retirement.
From Plato -- who may have been in his 70s when he composed "The Laws" -- to Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Buckminster Fuller in our century, the thinkers with the most advanced visions of the future have often been young oldsters.
And what price would the 20th century have paid if Winston Churchill had been subject to mandatory retirement in 1939, the year World War II began?
The elder stateswoman, for the moment, is not visible because too few younger stateswomen are visible. Meanwhile, there are the older artists of the present -- the nonagenarian painter Georgia O'Keeffe, the nonagenarian novelist-journalist Rebecca West -- and other names of the recent past: the poet Marianne Moore, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska.
We are used to the exceptional achievements of exceptional men and women at what we take to be exceptional ages. But we have not yet generally accepted the same possibilities on their own scale for ordinary people.
We lack the models -- the everyday heroes and heroines -- of retirement.
We do not seem to hold the concept in our imagination as a normal, natural occurrence -- this perpetual possibility of birth and rebirth.
The phrase of the British gerontologist Alex Comfort -- "second trajectory" -- describes an ideal of retirement. the second trajectory would not be as hot, as fierce, as streaking a trajectory as the first. It would depend more on preference than necessity. It would be designed to satisfy oneself rather than others. Any competition would be directed against one's own previous standards of achievement.
One would not have to work if one did not want to work.
One would not have to play if one did not want to play.
After a lifetime as a professional, one would become an amateur in the literal sense of the word: One would do what one loved -- and perhaps for the first time, discover what that was.
The second trajectory would involve, in addition to an active self, a meditative self who would observe the process as it was going on, and consider any loss of efficiency as nothing.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed at a White House Conference on Aging: Retirement years should be "formative years, rich in possibilities to unlearn the follies of a lifetime, to see through inbred self-deceptions, to deepen understanding, and compassion."
At that point, the word "retirement," as it is now used, might be retireD.
In 1981 this Utopia of Maggie Kuhn -- and many others -- seems a long way off. But the perennial hope of a fruitful and serene retirement can be counted on to become stonger, if anything, as time goes by. In simplest terms, it is the prayer that W. H. Auden wrote for a friend about to retire: May sunbeams, falling across your breakfast table forecast new agreeable hours to paint in, rethumb a pet author, night by night through your dreams the sound of lapsing brooks assure you that you pass muster.m