Bliss and bane of retirement
By Valson Thampu
“What will you do after retirement?” was the question most people asked me in the last one year of my tenure as Principal of St. Stephen’s College.
They so asked for a good reason. They had seen, in instance after instance of retirement, retiring faculty members suffering either a sort of unmanning bewilderment or an agonizing crisis in identity. This is, perhaps, more acute in St. Stephen’s, if only because of the prestige the name carries. Nearly all faculty members–there have been rare exceptions, though-develop their identity wholly through the College.
It is not like sporting a label. It is more like grafting a new whole-body skin. So retirement for the colleagues I have seen meant not losing a coveted label, but a traumatic peeling away of the skin and having to exit in exposed raw, pink flesh. I have seen its trauma in many instances.
Look a little deeper. The faculty members of a prestigious institution tend to define their scope, the extent of their freedom, even unwittingly, in terms of the institution. It is the sum total of their identity in every respect and for all practical purposes.
Sadly, this is mistaken for devotion, or loyalty, to the institution. It is lauded as a positive virtue, which it simply is not! It is the adoption of an easy way in which one becomes a parasite on what others have done and bequeathed. This is a disservice both to the institution and to oneself and deserves to be deprecated as such.
In my four decades-long association with St. Stephen’s College I have noticed that those who are keenest to flaunt the Stephanian label are the ones who make the least contribution to it. The smaller your stature, the greater your need to flaunt a fig leaf.
The sad thing is that such practices are just taken as ‘the done thing.’ It is never examined critically, which denotes a flaw in the intellectual culture of an institution, which is unforgivable especially in respect of one located in higher education.
What most people do not realize is the necessary connection between freedom and resistance. Or, the incompatibility between freedom and adopting the line of least resistance. Basking in the reflected glory of a reputed institution is just that, and nothing more. A parasite disqualifies himself for freedom and dignity.
One of the things I sought to demonstrate, even at grave peril and suffering to myself, was the need to change one’s perspective on this regrettable state of affairs. What begins in time must end in time. Appointment and retirement are sides of the same coin. You cannot have the one without the other. Both should be equally joyful and exciting. They can be!
At this stage we must address a widespread and pernicious myth. In popular perception, the greater the institution one serves, the keener should be one’s pain at leaving it. So very untrue! What is the mark of an institution’s greatness? Is it not its genius in promoting the continual, on-going growth of its members? To grow is to enlarge the scope of one’s freedom and possibilities. The proof of freedom–as even a bird will tell you-is your ability to spread your wings and fly. Staying put, confined to a cage, even a golden cage, is not freedom. The seed of freedom is one’s preparedness for newer opportunities.
Ask yourself, if you are really free will you think of the world out there in fear and uncertainty, or will you see it as an invitation to a different order of possibilities?
The truth, rarely recognized, is this. The proof of the greatness of an institution or system is the wholesome gladness and gratitude with which people retire from it. (Not to be confused with the relief with which employees flee from an institution!)
Let us grant ourselves a teaspoon of common sense. How can we take hold of newer possibilities, if we don’t let go on the present placement? Can we go forward without shifting from the neutral to the first gear, and then to further gears?
The real issue, therefore, is not that we retire. The issue is that we do not grow. We vegetate for three, four decades. The more we vegetate, the more unfit for life we become. That reality hits us, alas, too late. It nicks us only when the sun has begun to go down.
When I described my retirement as a “festival” early in 2016, many were skeptical. They thought I was administering myself a bit of verbal opium. Or, that I was expressing my relief at an 8-years long turbulence coming to an end. No, not at all!
I enjoyed my tenure as Principal. I dared. I ventured. I risked. I pushed the limits. And I grew! I was ready for a new phase in my life. I was filled to the brim with joy and eagerness!
The secret is to see one’s job not merely as a means for earning a livelihood, with a fleeting identity as bonus. Work is a medium of growth. Salary is incidental to work. The widespread problem in domains of work is that people degrade themselves to a routine, preferring the least demanding. They avoid resistance. They never push their limits. As a result, they never grow.
Growth is truly the core reward of work. Mechanical work is an insult to the human. We are not machines. Machines do not grow. They only become obsolete.
That’s how most people see themselves vis-à-vis retirement. They become obsolete. It means only one thing: they lived like machines. The problem is not retirement, it is choosing to live and work like machines.
So, there are two models of retirement: (a) one in which an employee is declared obsolete and (b) the other, in which an employee becomes free to stretch his hands towards a new future.
To belong to the latter, one must prepare oneself for it. The paradox is that this preparation has to begin from the very first day of one’s appointment. One must not drift into retirement. One must grow towards it. Growth makes all the difference; not the passage of time.
(Valson Thampu is former principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi)