The R-word | Pakistan Today

The R-word

A fate worse than death?

Not everywhere is retirement the dreaded word that it is in the Islamic Republic. In fact, the Americans talk very fondly about an early retirement. Not that they necessarily get it but that is the ideal at any rate. Life as a never-ending rat race makes very little sense, platitudes about the dignity of work, notwithstanding. When I first visited the USA back in early 2008, the officer at the immigration desk had asked about my father. I told him he was a former Army officer. He said he was too. He asked what he was doing now. I said he was living a retired life. The officer said that he was almost the same age and he still had to work. I thought the interview had started on an unfortunate note. I was soon proved right. It was more than three hours later that I was able to claim my luggage and get out of the airport. Of course, my nationality and my name (a very common one) had much to do with it and the officer was only doing his job; but I could sense that inadvertently I had touched a raw nerve somewhere. It was a good thing I had not volunteered the information that my father was happily retired for fifteen years then.

The story in Pakistan is completely different. People avoid retired life like it is the plague. A retiring government official, for example, would go to any length to get an extension or an employment elsewhere. He would do most anything to hang on to a job – any job – till at all possible. Musharraf, after being the all-powerful president of the country for so long, preferred being an MNA to retirement! Of course, the high-profile cases make the news, but things are not very different in the case of lower public servants. Very few have enough interests outside their work not to appear like prisoners of war after retirement. This prospect alone is frightening enough for most. So it is that way too many people have this ‘Till death do us part’ relationship with their jobs.

Like root canals, retirement is an unavoidable fact of life. Like root canals it reminds us of our decline and mortality. Like root canals we find it hard to welcome it when it comes. And like root canals it remains a touchy subject for most. But it need not be, provided one has enough to have a decent life.

Those who manage to secure re-employment offer charming reasons for continuing to work. To cite a few: staying ‘active’, using their expertise to serve the public, giving back to the country, being useful till the end, and dying with their boots on.  Yeah, right! On the other hand, sitting for any length of time with retired people usually is a very depressing experience because they are extremely nostalgic about their former jobs and seem to have been stuck inside a time bubble.

Of course, there are those government servants who are notoriously apt to obliging others or exploiting their nuisance value to their own benefit. In their case retirement is an understandable loss of power. What about decent human beings however, who one hopes are in a majority? Why is retirement so problematic for these gentler souls? Financial constraints could justify it but what about the many cases where no such considerations are there? The trouble is that in inter-subjective reality and people’s shared imagination a retired person is somehow less than a working one. It is hard not to fear that people will think less of us after we are retired when we ourselves think less of retired folks. The thought of not being in a ‘respectable’ position anymore is unbearable. These things are self-perpetuating in that they are their own cause and effect at the very same time. It is the same with gossip. Those who like to talk about other people unfavourably behind their backs are the ones most scared of others doing the same. Those who do not have this pastime are less sensitive to the thought of people badmouthing them. Many of them are outright indifferent to it.

Like root canals, retirement is an unavoidable fact of life. Like root canals it reminds us of our decline and mortality. Like root canals we find it hard to welcome it when it comes. And like root canals it remains a touchy subject for most. But it need not be, provided one has enough to have a decent life.

Work is such an important aspect of most people’s lives that once it is gone, there is precious little left, making them feel empty and incomplete. This leads to an acute identity crisis. The discussion on self-esteem and identity is a complex one for another day. Suffice it to say here that it is important to remind oneself occasionally that work, while important, is a poor purpose of life, unless of course you are an Edhi or an RD Burman. That is why it is so important to have a balanced life with multiple genuine pursuits outside work.

Hasan Aftab Saeed

The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed



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