I have been retired for a number of years. I have never admitted that I “missed” work; I have acknowledging regretting the loss of regular personal interaction, perhaps missing the structure, slightly missing the challenge. I had reason to bring this all to mind when I read an essay by Camus and a current novel by the Israeli author, A. B. Yehoshua. First, consider this paragraph from Camus’s “Love of Life.” He starts by talking about travel, while comparing the escape of travel to the escape of work:
For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat – hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people. Our own language, stripped of all our props, our deprived masks…we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value…,(54)
What Camus says about travel could also apply to retirement. Work gave us an excuse to be tired, distracted, absent. I know someone who continues to work well past the standard age for retirement – he admits that if he were retired he would have no excuse not to spend more time with his elderly mother.
Work also often gave us a sense of place, esteem, belonging, structure. Of course, once we retire, it can be disillusioning to find out how little we were needed and how seamlessly we were replaced. Many retirees initially respond by filling their lives with volunteer work, clubs, book groups, exercise classes, travel – anything to replace a work-like structure and feel like there is a place we belong. There is nothing wrong with any of that, except perhaps the escape from the soul-sickness that Camus describes – the dropping of the “deprived masks” that restores the real world to us. Perhaps, in retirement, we should let ourselves get “soul-sick” enough to revert to the “miraculous value” of the world that we might have felt as children.
Yehoshua’s novel, The Tunnel, is about a retired engineer experiencing some mental confusion. The main character, Luria, and his wife meet with a neurologist about Luria’s brain scan, which shows a “spot” that may be the reason Luria is losing his memory. (This has come to a head when he takes the wrong child home from the daycare center where his grandson is enrolled.) When Luria refers to himself as having “dementia,” the doctor objects:
“Please, why dementia? We’re not there yet. Don’t rush to claim something you don’t understand and don’t raise unnecessary fears, and above all, don’t get addicted to passivity and fatalism. Retirement is not the end of the road, and so you need to find work in your field, even part-time, private work. (3)
Luria used to work for the state designing roads and tunnels, and at the urging of the doctor and his wife signs on as an unpaid “helper” to a young engineer in his old department. This has its ups, downs and adventures, but he finds that when he is actually working at his old desk (now possessed by the young engineer), he slides right back into his old persona – at least for a while. Of course, this temporarily relieves his anxiety and distracts him, but he soon realizes that he cannot go backward. Somehow he needs to go on. Though the “spot” on his brain will grow, so will his appreciation of a world beyond roads, tunnels, and logic.
Retirement need not mean “addiction to passivity and fatalism.” It is an open door – but an open door can be scary. Both Camus and Yehoshua realize this. And some sense of purpose and structure is necessary – but for many of us, retirement is the first time in our lives when we can design our own structure, set our own goals. Simone de Beauvoir said that every old person needed their own “project” in order to stay sane. (See my earlier post about de Beauvoir, “Projects of Our Old Age.”) We should just hope to be strong enough to choose that project rather than succumbing to distraction and expectation. And it is only to ourselves that the project needs to have meaning.
This week’s story, “This Little Light of Mine,” is about meaning that a woman carves out of her widowhood and old age. From the outside it is silly, but… think hard. It is perhaps no more ridiculous than some of the ways we spend our precious last years. It is not intended as a model, but just a reminder that we should make meaning in our life in some ways. Hopefully, yours will be a little less far-fetched.