Tag Archives: time

Retirement And Its Uses

What is Retirement?  In one sense, it is a wholly negative term, defined by what it is not.  As darkness is the absence of light, retirement is the absence of work (at least paid work).  A void in time, created for both positive and negative reasons.  The upside is that retirement, if properly prepared for, allows one to live without earning a paycheck.  Savings, Social Security, and pensions can combine to make paid work unnecessary. The negative is that the aging process can reduce or destroy the worker’s ability to continue working.

So retirement is the non-existence of the need to work for pay.   Some continue working in “retirement”, or past the “usual retirement age” defined by Social Security eligibility, for various reasons: poverty (lack of savings), avarice (desire to accumulate wealth beyond need), or because they enjoy their work, or boredom (“what else would I do all day?”).

The “what-else-would-I do-all-day?” folks make an interesting point.  What do retirees do with their time?

They seem busy, but if you ask them what they are busy doing, you get confused answers; they’re not sure why they are so busy, they just are. (Spare me your senility jokes.)

(An enterprising sociology professor should get a big government/NGO grant to study this. An army of clipboard-armed grad students following old people around all day, noting their every move, would certainly liven things up in Phoenix or Broward County.)

All joking aside, the use of time is an issue for everyone; but circumstances push it to the forefront for retirees.

Some clever person has observed that “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Time is a difficult thing to wrap one’s hands around.  In old age we have lots of time on our hands but very little time left on earth.  How does one deal with that?  We are told that time is relative, and anyone who has watched the last two minutes of an NFL or NBA game knows that to be true.

Some treat retirement as an extended vacation.  Others maximize social activities or hobbies.  The new-old (younger and healthier) retirees can turn it into a re-lived or re-imagined high school; their idols are restored classic cars from the 50’s and 60’s.  Retirement communities like The Villages in central Florida cater to all these themes.

So retirement can be like an extended vacation, an endless life of socializing after golf, or an eternal summer before their senior year.

Is there another way of looking at it?

Jewish theologian Abraham J. Heschel touched on an aspect of all this in his essay “The Sabbath: Holiness In Time”.  He posits a contrast between time and space.

“Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time.

Every one of us occupies a portion of space…Yet no one possesses time.  We share time, we own space.

Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time… We suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look in its face… ”

For Heschel, the Sabbath is the focal point of the Jewish sense of holiness in time.  And while retirement is generally defined in negative terms (non-work), the Sabbath reverses this.

“The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.  It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.  Three acts of God denoted the Seventh Day: He rested, He blessed, and He hallowed the Seventh Day (Genesis 2:2-3).”

(This may appear similar to the conception of our modern week-end.  As an old song* had it, “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” But that image of the weekend is closer to the high school model than to the Sabbath. Still…)

If the workweek is for the Sabbath, could that mean that the working life is for the retirement?

Prior to the last century, and even now outside the prosperous industrial world, it was and is certainly not the case.  Retirement, if it happened at all, occurred when the worker was no longer of any use in gainful employment, becoming an economic  burden on his family (at best).

But here and now, retirement has expanded (even exploded) as a highly desirable, wealthy, and sustainable demographic.  Social Security in all developed countries provides an income floor.  Savings (often tax-sheltered) and private pensions add to the comfort level. The elderly are now, on average, among the most prosperous sectors of our society (there is, of course, a cohort of the elderly poor: but they do not predominate).  One has only to visit retirement communities in Florida, Arizona, or anywhere else warm, to see this.  Golf cart-accessible “villages”, boomer classic car gatherings (high school redux!), and second homes (for those who find Arizona too hot or Florida too muggy in summer) abound.

What’s wrong with that, one may ask? Nothing; but it is not the Sabbath.  It is not holy.

(Of course, modern retirement often resembles the customary modern secular sabbath, devoted to socializing and spectator sports.)

But can retirement be a time for awareness of and participation in the holiness of time?  If not “instead”, then at least “in addition”?  What would that look like?

Daily mass?  Morning and evening prayer?  Time with family?  Volunteering at the hospital, school, or food bank, to help those in need?

In fact, this describes the regular life of many good Catholics, even during their working years.  How much more so could retirement be?

Holiness in time: maybe  it isn’t just for Sundays anymore.



*1981 song by Canadian band Loverboy, containing the following:

Everybody’s working for the weekend

Everybody wants a little romance

Everybody’s goin’ off the deep end

Everybody needs a second chance,

The album was titled “Get Lucky”.

The Sacred Second

We measure things.  It is one of the things humans do. Mostly because we plan to use them.  

Measurements are of two kinds: natural/intuitive and artificial/synthetic.  Natural ones came first.  Feet based on an average foot (mine, I say without bragging, are exactly one foot long – including the shoe. This makes for a useful way to walk off distances.)  Cubits based on an average forearm of about a foot and a half.  An inch is about the length of a thumb knuckle.

The metric system, on the other hand, is artificial/synthetic, based on…something. (I don’t know what.)  Built on our numbering system, it is more easily used in science and math.

The only area where a natural/intuitive system still prevails in its traditional un-metricized form is our measurement of time.  Natural constants still govern here. A year is one revolution in earth’s orbit around the sun: one cycle of seasons.  A day is one rotation on the earth’s axis: one cycle of light and darkness.  In between a year and a day we have more artificial measures: months and weeks.  And below the day, we have sub-divisions of hour, minute, and second.

Our awareness of the passage of time is a difficulty for us. In late afternoon we ask “where has the day gone?”  Our clocks tell us, but we are still surprised. 

Years are even more so.  On our birthdays and New Year’s Day, we celebrate or mourn the elusive passing of another year; we ponder, for a day, the mysterious year ahead, before moving on into uncharted daily existence.

Even at the much smaller scale, it is hard to track time without mechanical assistance.  Try to concentrate on a single subject or thought for a full minute, without looking at a clock. For me, distractions invariably arise, especially the distraction of wondering how much of the minute has elapsed.  To some extent, this is the problem of reverse concentration: try not to think of an elephant. 

But the crux of the problem is the difficulty of measuring time with our mind alone.  The only way I can make myself aware of the passage of a minute is to count to 60. In other words, to count seconds.

Why are seconds so much easier for us to embrace than any larger measure of time?  Check your pulse. If you are healthy and resting, your heartbeat should be right around 60 beats per minute: a natural standard.

Tiny, fragile, elusive, the second is nonetheless the most tangible form in which we can consciously confront time. It cannot be an accident that it is also the measure of our life blood nourishing our very existence.  The last second-long heartbeat is the end of our earthly life. And long before our birth, the second-long beats of our hearts mark what we are and will become.

The passage of time is thus the passage of life.  Prisoners are said to count the days of their sentences by chalk marks on the cell wall.  If they didn’t do so, they might lose track of the passage of time and their sentences would become infinite.  

Every second is a gift from God.  This can be said of day, week, month and year, of course.  But they slip past us.   Such gifts deserve thanks.  It is appropriate to try to insert a prayer of thanksgiving into every second.  But is it possible?

I am trying.  I find that simply thinking “Thank you, Lord” can be done in about a second.  I can’t do it every second, of course.  But I can do it often.

And I can try to live my life in such a way that I feel grateful for every second.  Some days this is easier than others.  But I can try.

I can try.