The Retirement Trap
(and other age-related temptations)
I was an unwilling member of the 60’s generation, treated throughout my college years to the sweeping denunciations of the military-industrial complex by campus radicals. Fifteen years later, I noticed that many of these same radicals were busy making money in business—and living luxuriously.
Temptations Change with Age
This is hardly surprising. In each period, they were simply succumbing to the temptations characteristic of their age group. Young and away from home, college students are prone to rebellion, experimentation, and a certain naïve idealism. (Older readers will understand that the temptations to apathy and cynicism come later.)
It is hard for me to speak for women, but for many men in their late 20’s and 30’s, there is a conviction that they will go on to great things and make a large difference in the world. I’m not sure which years are most prone to pride, for it seems to arise anew with each change in attitude, but there is a temptation in these years to look down on those who aren’t movers and shakers. And God help those older useless fools (curmudgeons all) who stand in the way of the advancement of ourselves and our great ideas.
Not Fighting Temptation
Like our radical friends from the 60’s, if we don’t resist the temptations of one stage in life, it is unlikely that we will effectively resist the temptations of the next stage. Today’s horror at the characteristic failings of our elders will turn into tomorrow’s personal sins.
As we move into our 40’s and 50’s, we slowly realize we are not going to rise as high as we expected, and that our impact on the world is never going to be anything but negligible. More personally, we may have failed the test of fidelity in our vocation. Our kids may not have turned out well (with or without our own fault). We may have a broken marriage, or have lost a spouse or child. Now comes the temptation to quit striving. Worse, there is a corresponding temptation to belittle those whose accomplishments are called to our attention.
Thus do we arrive at apathy and cynicism.
The Dream of Uselessness
Apathy and cynicism lead to a shift in focus. Let us concentrate, we say, on making ourselves comfortable and happy. Let us retool our financial plan and take an early retirement. Let us live for travel, for recreation, for relaxation. Most readers of this column probably have some control over these small matters, which now seem not so small at all.
In our culture, as we move into our late 50’s and 60’s, we are encouraged to stop working, live off the fat of the land, and pamper ourselves. Perhaps life hasn’t gone exactly as hoped, but now at least we can cut loose from responsibility and enjoy ourselves before we are too old to do so. For example, at age 56, I am already in some ways a hardened cynic, and I find myself increasingly concerned about my leisure time. The temptation is real.
What We Should Be Doing
What we should be doing, of course, is a serious examination of conscience. It is important to recognize that certain attitudes common to our age group may in themselves be near occasions of sin. Nobody says that at 60 or 65 or 70 we have to keep doing the same old job and living in the same old way, but potential changes should be examined through a spiritual lens. Very likely we prayed desperately about our vocation or about our first job so many years ago. How much more should we seek to be pleasing to God in the decisions of later life!
For those of us tempted by a comfortable retirement, the lens of spiritual introspection may lead us to discover (or rediscover) persons near at hand who can benefit enormously from our love, prayers and service. Through that same lens, we may well espy new avocational contributions that are uniquely ours to make. We may not have the energy or the range of activity we once had, but when is the last time Our Lord asked us to conquer the world? Instead, we can use our interests as a guide to effective service that might also give us a welcome change of pace.
When we’re older and weaker, we can continue to pray and attempt even more through our trials to make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church. If we ever get to the point when we can’t even pray, well, time enough then to take a break.
Easy to Say
All this is very easy to say. I can see the retirement temptation coming, but my portfolio is far from set, I still have two teenagers at home, and Peter has not yet completed his (prodigious!) task of making me irrelevant at work. So for me, crunch time has not yet come.
Still, there is a lesson here, and it turns out that the recipe for every stage of life is the same as the recipe for retirement: Resist temptations more effectively right now. This—probably only this—will prepare us for the next round of avoiding age-related spiritual traps.
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