From “The Bible Speaks On Ageing”
by Frank Stagg, 1911-2001
Trauma or joyful harvest? For some, retirement is a multifaceted problem; for others, it is a joyous blessing. For the taxpayer, it is an increasing burden. For retirees, it may be a blessing or a trauma. Some older people are in a position to retire and can do so without inconvenience. without a sense of guilt (as though one must continue to “produce” or forfeit the right to be), and without a sense of emptiness (as though life has no meaning apart from work). For them, retirement is not the end of life but the beginning of a new chapter in life with new options. For others retirement is traumatic. Some find themselves locked into a fixed income outrun by inflation. Some find nothing to replace work, giving them a sense of having no worth.
One answer to retirement is found in a biblical pattern allowing for flexibility (Num. 8:23-26). The Levites had a modified retirement, with reduction of workload but not total withdrawal from active service. No plan is fail-safe, but there is here a principle for implementation. Retirement need not be a “Babylonian Exile.” There could be flexibility both as to calendar age and degree of involvement. “All or nothing” is not an unbreakable law.
Retirement is most problematic for older people when arbitrary, forced, and total. The community could be served by the gifts of older people, and older people could be given happier options. Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb (all above 80) were not retirees; and they served their nation well. Zechariah, Simeon and Anna were old, but they served the Christian movement at its rise. Older people should not hold on in such a way as to deny due opportunity to younger people, but neither should they be shunted off by nothing else than a birth certificate. Probably no retirement plan can be devised once-for-all, but there can be openness to the matter and constant review.
Much can be done in preparation for more meaningful older age. One thing is to be realistic and positive about the limits of physical life. Physical death is universal and but a heartbeat away from any one of us from infancy to actual death. It is a positive thing to take our mortality into our self-affirmation. To be physically mortal is a part of who we are. This need not be a “morbid” attitude taken with defeatist resignation. It can be salutary to see that as to physical life, all any of us has right now is now. Past and future have their proper places and importance, but in youth and older age, we can try to make now count.
We may have the assurance of life beyond physical death, a basic Christian assurance, and that in itself should be a sustaining factor; but life should have meaning here and now. Fullness of life is possible now, transcending the fluctuations of physical factors. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22). These are the qualities which can enter into a life and give it direction and meaning. These qualities cannot be imposed upon us, but they are there for us if we are open to God and these qualities. Such qualities can make the difference between being enjoyers or just survivors or casualties in the later years.
The Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are highly instructive as to factors which largely determine the quality of life, in youth or old age. Jesus declared “blessed” or “happy” persons characterised by such qualities as meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercifulness, purity of heart, peacemaking and the willingness to suffer for the sake of Christ and of what is right. The list is not exhaustive, but it points out the direction of a meaningful life. If one wants to grow old gracefully, with beauty and power, these are among the qualities which must be built into life, and the earlier the better.
Nothing has so much to do with the quality of life and its fulfilment, whether young or old, as the principle which Jesus made primary. If we try to save ourselves, we self-destruct; if we are willing to lose ourselves to God and other people, we find life (John12:25). Like a grain of wheat, one must “die” to “live” (v. 24). To be selfish, turned in upon oneself, guarantees failure. Nothing so damages human existence and makes the later years emptier or more miserable than garden-variety selfishness. On the other hand, just look around at the older people whose lives are radiant in power and beauty. They are not selfish people. They are people who have found life by giving it to God and to the service of other people. They have beauty and power in their older years because early in life they gave themselves to the values, principles, goals and relationships which yield such quality of life. They cultivated the attitudes and disposition which produce such quality of life. They gave themselves to the Christ who can give life and give it abundantly. People like these have found life by giving it to others. That is much of the “secret” of how to grow older gracefully and meaningfully.
Another factor in growing older meaningfully is the willingness to accept the God-given right to be oneself. Life is a gift, and the right to be oneself is a gift. We do not have to earn the right to be. We had nothing to do with being born into the world. We are not responsible for being here, but in being here we are responsible. One of our responsibilities is to accept ourselves and our right to be. Have you ever heard an adult say to a child, “If you are ever going to amount to anything!” This implies that the child does not amount to anything now. It implies that one does not have worth until earned. This goes against the biblical doctrine of creation and the biblical doctrine of grace.
Added to this is that dogma in our tradition which insists that each day we must do something to prove again that we have the right to be here. This is disastrous for many older people, for whom forced retirement or impairment means that they are no longer able to “produce.” Many thus feel worthless. Work should be a joyous privilege, an open opportunity for anyone able to work. Older people should have the right not to work when work is no longer a positive factor for them. Older persons need to be assured of and to accept the right to be, to be themselves with security, dignity and meaning.
Work is not to be an end in itself, else one becomes a “workaholic.” Work is proper as a means of serving other people and/or as personal fulfilment. Older people who can work and want to work should have the opportunity to work. Older people who want to rest from work should be privileged to do so with dignity and security. Persons were not made for work, but work has meaning as it contributes to human fulfilment.
Peace with oneself is essential to any age. This means self-acceptance and self-affirmation. At any age, one should be open to growth and betterment, but there must also be a wholesome acceptance of oneself, “warts and all.” This includes acceptance of one’s age. whatever it is. There is good news for us all. It is all right to be young and it is all right to be old! Just as it was a victory for black people when they and others came to recognise that “black is beautiful,” so it is right for us to recognise that old can be beautiful too!