Sometime just before COVID upended everyone’s social life, my wife and I were at a dinner party. We were four couples, chatting around the dinner table. Suddenly, the realization dawned on me: I was the only person in the room who wasn’t retired. When did this happen? I wondered. And indeed, every so often, someone will ask: “Are you still teaching? When do you think you’ll retire?”
(Gee, do I look like I need the rest?)
I’m pondering this because I turn 65 today (happy birthday, me!). It’s a number that still occupies that odd place in my imagination where I feel like there’s something I’m supposed to do — stop working, perhaps, or at least apply for AARP and Medicare. It feels like I forgot something.
And unfortunately, nowadays I get that feeling a lot.
I will admit to feeling tired these past couple of years. The pandemic revealed to me how much I had taken for granted an increasingly unrealistic and highly privileged cultural narrative: the story of a long and productive career, at the end of which one coasts happily into the “golden years.” My father, after all, lived that narrative. He had counted the days, literally calculating the earliest date he could retire while drawing his maximum civil service pension. He left his job and never looked back, living a relatively leisurely life for the next 30+ years.
But there’s been no coasting with COVID.
It’s not just the disease itself, but the collateral damage of pandemic restrictions. The comfort of long-standing routines has been replaced by a constant need for adaptation. Everything seems unpredictable and uncertain. With more and more people working from home, the buildings on campus sometimes feel deserted — assuming that safety protocols allow us to be on campus in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong: especially given my age group, I am firmly on the side of caution, and often find myself in a mask-wearing minority. But all of this feels like being transported into another world. It’s the stuff of science fiction.
. . .
Just in case my department chair is reading this: no, I don’t have any plans to retire anytime soon. Despite the challenges and disappointments of the past two years, I still feel inordinately blessed to do what I do. I may be ready to be done with the pandemic, but I’m not ready to be done with what I consider to be my ministry of teaching and mentoring students, writing, or serving God through the ministries of the church. Hopefully, that means that God isn’t done with me either.
And that’s precisely where we might need to rethink the meaning of “retirement.” Its original meaning is to withdraw. We “retire” for the night by withdrawing from the hustle and bustle of daily activity to go to sleep. We “retire” from consideration by withdrawing an application. But I suspect that the typical meaning of “retirement” — withdrawing from the world of work in our later years — has become typical because that narrative of years of work followed by years of rest has been so easily taken for granted in the modern industrialized world.
It was my father’s story, and the story of many in his generation. I didn’t realize how much I had expected it to be mine.
But what if, instead, we saw all of our work as God’s work? I don’t mean that God writes the policies and paychecks. I mean that anything that occupies our time and energy — our “occupations” — can be seen as opportunities, in some way, to further God’s purposes, for ourselves, for others, for the world.
Nor should we think of the story as work, work, work — then rest when you’re too tired to work anymore. The biblical norm is a work-Sabbath rhythm, of carving out time within our work to enjoy God-given rest and renewal.
For now, I intend to keep going, as God gives me strength (and half a brain). That doesn’t mean that my work-related roles and responsibilities won’t change; after these past two years, who can take that for granted anymore? But it does mean that I hope that God will continue to remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing, today, in this place, with these people.
May I never retire from that.