It’s the question I hate most, and in recent years, it comes more frequently: Are you retired? I always say that I can’t imagine retirement and will probably work till I drop. Then, I immediately feel compelled to ask, “Do I look like I should retire?”
Colleen, my lovely wife, reassures me that I don’t look like I’m 70 years old, but I see friends and colleagues who do look old, and I don’t want that for myself (which I say with a certain degree of heightened vanity). Ernest Hemingway summed it up for me when he called retirement “the worst death.”
From the memoir, “Papa Hemingway,” by A.E. Hotchner: “The worst death for anyone is to lose the center of his being, the thing he really is. Retirement is the filthiest word in the language. Whether by choice or by fate, to retire from what you do – and what you do makes you what you are – is to back up into the grave.”
Hemingway was a literary action hero who sought to live life through his (sometimes inflated) characters, and he emphasized virtues such as courage, grit, and the heroism of ordinary men and women.
I am my calling, and that calling is the center of my being. When I lose the center of my being, then I probably should just die. I’ve never felt released from that call, and I don’t anticipate being released. I can’t see myself backing “into the grave.”
Since my faith decision 55 years ago, I have lived knowing that I am to do mercy; pursue justice; and walk humbly with my God (Micah 6:8). Walking humbly with my God has probably been my greatest challenge. That aside, doing mercy and pursuing justice has taken me to interesting places, and to places where I saw and confronted injustice firsthand.
Being a witness to injustice has also made me an activist. I have been witness to the Vietnam War; racial segregation; poverty and economic injustice in Africa; and criminal justice reform. As long as my eyes can see and my ears can hear, there will be a voice proclaiming mercy and justice.
Based on my current work, there are still women oppressed; there is an emerging new wave of racism; and the wealthy continue to dehumanize and marginalize the poor. We are living in an era of religious nationalism marked by xenophobia, elitism, and the pursuit of power, so how does one simply step out of the arena?
For me, it recalls a speech Theodore Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910, when he said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”
The cliché about age is just a number only takes you so far when the physical manifestations of years on this planet settle themselves on one’s face and in the aching joints of the body. I have friends who have embraced retirement and now travel (or will travel, post quarantine); spend time with the grandkids; and appreciate simply “chilling.” I also have friends, staff, and maybe even children who probably would like me to move along that path myself. I have seen it in the eye-rolls at family gatherings, as if silently saying, “Did he really just say that?”
Even those who love retirement don’t like the feeling of being kicked to the curb, but this period of my life isn’t about fear of irrelevance or being ignored; it’s about answering the call. There still burns within me a passion to do justice, seek mercy, and to love God with all my heart.
I began with a Hemingway quote, so let me end with another that sits prominently on my desk: “Man is not made for defeat. Man can be destroyed, but not defeated.”
To face life with courage, compassion, and boldness; to never
fall backward into a grave – it’s a key pillar of the legacy I seek to create. Retirement?
Yes, it may be the filthiest word in the language.
 A.E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, DA Capo Press, 2005 (228)
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