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Learn to Grow Old – Paul Tournier

February 25, 2016

LTGOI have long been interested in the subject of retirement and note that many ‘seminars’ that prepare people for it are merely devoted to finances and pensions. My professional association recommends that people plan for retirement in their 40s. this book argues the same.

This book contains much ‘advice’ which I previously knew about and it is good to have some of my hunches confirmed.

It reflects the time in which it was written when it talks about the future when technology will lead to a shorter working week and earlier retirement. Sadly that didn’t materialise.

The author is right to imply that retirement is, at heart, a spiritual issue. It goes to the depths is the question ‘Who am I?’ not least because my identity is moulded by external influences e.g. work, raising a family. Who shall I become when these are no longer my main occupation?

His thesis is that we have been taught in our culture the superior importance of work as a duty, and that leisure is not to be valued. What confers dignity upon us is the fulfilment of our duty – our work, our productivity, our function in society, our professional occupation. When we retire we often lose our place and purpose, our importance and value as human beings. The Protestant work ethic is defined in terms of frugality, temperance, self-denial and thrift. Enjoyment is suspect. Idleness is the mother of all vices. No one wants to be called lazy. The teaching of Proverbs 6:6-11 is basic to all successful men and women.

“In the West, almost everyone agrees in proclaiming in words, in theory, the supreme value of the human person. We quote … ‘Man is the measure of all things’.

The key to a fulfilling retirement lies in a healthy personality, prior experiences of enjoying play and leisure, continued opportunities for personal growth, cognitive stimulation, and social life, and the development of a second vocation or an avocation prior to retirement, which could be expanded and pursued upon retirement.

My RE master in 6th form did his PhD on Paul Tournier and, at the height of my tribalist anglo-catholicism, I wrote both of them off as ‘protestants’ I now realise that was misguided. (Tournier writes that students rebel against their teachers!) We have much in common. My father died when I was a chid, Tournier was orphaned and withdrew into himself and became lonely and shy. Throughout his adolescence he maintained a sense of insecurity, which he would hide behind an intellectual facade, though I can’t claim the intellectual bit. Like me he was 12 when he became a Christian and was opposed to liberalism. He was interested in the relationship between medicine, counselling, and spiritual values and argued the need for an holistic approach. He veered towards a universalist approach to salvation.

There’s an interfaith e.g. Buddha, Gandhi, dimension as well as an ecumenical one.

I liked his idea that when travelling towards a village, you only get signposts to cities and big towns until you get very near. In the same way, God guides us one but at a time and we have to trust that he is leading us towards our heart’s desire.

I am reminded of a conversation with someone younger than me who told me that he has 2 months to live and bequeathed to me his many bottles of fine wines but who also said he was not scared of dearth in n a way that silenced any further conversation: a clergyman who was suffering from an incurable disease, and who was gradually approaching death. Their conversations were cordial and friendly, but always superficial. My friend was on the look-out for a more profound opening of the heart. One day, after a long silence, the patient murmured: There’s something I want to tell you.’ My friend pricked up his ears — were they at last going to talk about what really mattered? No! ‘I’ve got a dozen bottles of sherry: would you like to have them?’ asked the patient. It was kind, but it was a disappointment. Many subjects of conversation are no more than reassuring diversions to avoid the problem of death

Anyone who quotes Paul Ricour is good as far as I am concerned!

He is financially naïve in suggesting that actuarially reduced pensions and unjust and that if there was flexibility in retiring between the ages of 60 and 70, the cost of pensions would even out.

There’s some repetition and the book could have done with some, or better, editing. The chapters are too long for my liking.

LTGO 2 Quotations:

“Life is a task to be accomplished. But who can claim that he has accomplished his task, that he has finished his task? The task always remains unfinished. The acceptance I am referring to here is perhaps one of the most difficult to achieve: it is acceptance of unfulfillment.”

our manner of life now is already determining your life in those years of old age and retirement, without your realizing it even, and perhaps without your giving enough thought to it. One must therefore prepare oneself for retirement.

The real problem is not whether to do this rather than that, but what is the significance for us of what we are doing: whether it is merely in order to pass the time, or whether it is the expression of a vital need to keep on growing and developing our personality right to the end. Many people carefully avoid ever putting the ques­tion to themselves.

In order to make a success of old age, one must begin it earlier, and not try to postpone it as long as possible. In the middle of life we must stop to think, to organize our existence with an eye to a still distant future, instead of allowing ourselves to be entirely sucked into the professional and social whirl. It is then that it is important to give place little by little to less external activities, less technical and more cultural, which will survive the moment of retirement.

People are reluctant to talk about old age and death because they are afraid of emotion, and they willingly avoid the things they feel most emotional about, though these are the very things they most need to talk about.

Christian faith does not involve repressing one’s anxiety in order to appear strong. On the contrary, it means recognizing one’s weakness, accepting the inward truth about oneself, confessing one’s anxiety, and still to believe, that is to say that the Christian puts his trust not in his own strength, but in the grace of God.

“When the child cannot leave his mother’s apron-strings, when he cannot assume his adolescent autonomy, he is already suspected of neurosis. When that adolescent cannot become adult and assume the responsibilities of an adult, he sinks into neurosis. Neurosis is always linked with an inability to evolve. The adult who cannot accept growing old, or the old person who cannot accept his old age, or who accepts it grudgingly, ‘because he’s got to’, is in the same difficulty, blocked in his evolution against the stream of life. Life is one-way, its law is the same for all, it moves only forwards. ….One prepares for old age by taking a positive attitude throughout one’s life, that is to say by living each stage fully. The Bible talks of the patriarchs, like Abraham, who died in peace because he “died at a good old age, and old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8).

There is another striking analogy — that of marriage. One cannot make a success of marriage without detaching oneself from one’s parents. What is involved is not merely a formal, administrative, detachment, but a breaking of bonds which goes deep into the heart. This reconversion from the first to the second career implies an inner conversion. If there remains a secret nostalgia for the old working life, its joys and even its sorrows, its struggles and its victories, the social status it conferred, and for the exciting feeling of being part of a large-scale enterprise, of engaging in an industrial or scientific adventure — that secret nostalgia is a great obstacle to the birth of a valid second career. Imprisoned by his past, the retired person is not free enough in his mind to construct a new future.

All the renunciations demanded by old age are in the field of action. not in that of the heart and mind. They belong to the order of `doing’, not that of ‘being’. I live differently, but not less. Life is different, but it is still fully life — even fuller, if that were possible. My interest and participation in the world is not diminishing, bus increasing. In a well-known declaration, General Macarthur said. in 1945: ‘You don’t get old from living a particular number of years: you get old because you have deserted your ideals. Years wrinkle your skin, renouncing your ideals wrinkles your soul. Worm, doubt, fear and despair are the enemies which slowly bring us down to the ground and turn us to dust before we die.’

 If old people give advice to young people who ask for it, that is fine. But it seems to me less than just that the old people should complain if the young people do not ask for it. Advice too, belongs to the sphere of action. To claim that it is one’s proper function is still to claim hierarchical superiority. For some old people, to give advice, to tell other people what they ought to do, is a way of getting their revenge for being deprived of the oppor­tunity of direct action. There are grandparents who spoil their relationship with their children and grandchildren by giving too much advice on the upbringing of young people, especially by criticizing their behaviour.

Many young folk avoid old people who give advice. Their task is to invent something new, not to copy the ancients. Old people com­plain that these young people are lacking in proper respect. That respect is one more hierarchical idea, valid in active life, but not in old age. We surround with respect those old people who do not ask for it. We ask advice of those old people who do not insist on giving it. The old have something better to do — to become con­fidants. We will open our hearts to those who will listen in order to understand us, and not in order to judge us or direct us. Tha.: is the function of the wide open heart. That is the manner of `being-in-the-world’ which befits old age.

A social worker dedicated to the service of the aged said to me the other day: ‘ Those who consider that they deserve to have even-thing done for them tend to put off those who would like do something for them; for those who are grateful, one would do anything at all.’ In fact, to claim respect, to claim the right to give advice, is to try still to exercise a certain power over others. The key to success in old age seems to me to be in the abandonment: the will to power. This is the more difficult, the more powerful owe has been in active life.

There is one biblical character (I Kings 19.9-16) from whose experiences we can learn much in this respect. If ever there was a powerful prophet, it was Elijah. With his own hand he destroyed four hundred and fifty prophets of the false god Baal. For him the power of Yahweh burst forth in numerous miracles. At the height of his triumph, though threatened by Queen Jezebel, he goes off into the desert. Were all those wonders for nothing? He is depressed, he hopes to die! It is a veritable crisis of retirement. Then Yahweh comes to meet him. Yahweh places the prophet in a cave, and announces that he is about to reveal himself to him. A hurricae passes by, but Yahweh is not in it. An earthquake shakes mountain, but Yahweh is not in it. Then a fire, but Yahweh is nee in it. Finally Elijah hears the sound of a gentle breeze, and he recognizes his God, and veils his face.

Then God acts as a psychotherapist. He brings him out of hi cave and helps him to confess his jealous zeal, his anger and aggressiveness against his people. Yahweh does not reproach hm for having fought like a hurricane, or like an earthquake or a fire That was his vocation while he was still in the prime of life. But invites him now to hand his sword over to Elisha, to designate him ‘as prophet to succeed you’. And he reveals to Elijah that he may still serve his God in a quite different manner, with the softness of a ‘gentle breeze’.

disease, like old age, is a proclamation of death. There are some, even among doctors, who in order to maintain the morale of the old and the sick, seek to distract them from their worries with a flood of stories, gossip and banal chit-chat, taking care to avoid any illusion, how­ever remote, to death. The people they are talking to intuitively feel that a barrier is being set up, like a closed door through which it is forbidden to pass; as if someone were saying to them: ‘Above all, do not talk to me about your most private worries.’ They willingly become accomplices in this flight into banality. The witty remark or the playful pleasantry serve, on both sides, to avoid a true dia­logue. But the old person may feel a certain malaise after the de­parture of his visitor: what the latter has really done is to leave him alone with his anxiety.

I know very well that one can make the opposite mistake. There are in fact zealous and idealistic people who with best of intentions enter too easily and indiscreetly upon the delicate questions of life and death, or of religious faith. One might say that on such subjects some do not say enough and others say too much. In any case I would suggest that visitors should not so much talk as listen. An open, attentive and serious attitude puts the person at ease, so that he can say with confidence all he needs to say, without being afraid that he will be stopped either by an embarrassed silence or hasty and peremptory replies. There always takes place a very subtle psychological process when one tackles these problems which are highly charged with emotion: the emotion can be discharged only if it is expressed, but fear of the emotion often prevents its ex­pression.

So there are two attitudes, which are represented more or less by the two existentialists, Heidegger and Sartre. But to take up a position as resolutely as that one needs to be a philosopher. In practice we, whether we are Christians or not, constantly mix up or alternate the two reactions, because the problem of death is so far beyond us. We share to some extent in both — we feel the full seriousness of death, or else we hide it from ourselves.

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