To retire or not to retire

Happiness is not the product of the sum-total of one’s wealth or power.  Happiness, after all, comes from the simple pursuit of that which brings a smile to one’s face and joy to one’s heart.

Why some retire, others wither away

Ian Thorpe, one of the world’s greatest all-time swimmers, has announced his retirement at 24.  Thorpedo, as he was nicknamed for his speed, said his battle with sickness and the revelation that there was more to life than swimming had led to his decision.

“As I got fit, my mind got fit, and I started asking questions,” he said. “‘What’s the relevance of swimming to my life, what would my life be like without swimming?'”  “I haven’t balanced out my life as well as what I should have,” he said. Although he said he felt intense pressure to continue swimming, that pressure was coming from others, not from himself.

Thorpe is the latest in a string of prominent Australians who, in the last few years, have retired at the pinnacle of their careers and abandoned positions of fame and power in favour of personal happiness and family life.

The first that comes to mind is Tim Fisher, then Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.  In 1999 he surprised everyone by resigning from the Howard cabinet and the leadership of his National Party in order to spend more time with his two sons, one of whom suffers from autism.  After quitting parliament in 2001, he returned to farming and got involved in charity work.

His successor, a healthy-looking John Anderson, also resigned last year from the cabinet and his party, citing a “debilitating but thankfully benign prostate condition” and other personal concerns.

The same year, New South Wales’ longest continuously serving premier, Bob Carr, surprised everyone by announcing he was quitting politics after a decade as Premier of Australia’s most populous state (whose capital is Sydney).  Mr Carr, who was regarded by many as a potential future prime minister, said he had decided to go after spending “one of those beautiful Sydney weekends” with his wife.  Another Premier of NSW, Neville Wran, had resigned in 1986 after 10 years in office.

Geoff Gallop, Premier of Western Australia since 2001, suddenly announced earlier this year his resignation from State Parliament, saying that he was suffering from depression and needed to “rethink his career for the sake of his family and his health”.  A former academic, whom his one-time classmate and friend Tony Blair ranks as the most original mind he has ever known, Gallop has now joined University of Sydney as Professor and Director of its Graduate School of Government.

Another Labor leader, Mark Latham, Leader of the Opposition in the Federal Parliament, quit politics early last year in rather murky and unedifying circumstances, a combination of political failure, intra-party wrangling and illness.  Diagnosed with pancreatitis, Latham thought he had had enough of politicians and politics. 

In a public lecture after his retirement, Latham claimed that politics has a detrimental impact on health, happiness and family life, largely blaming the ‘arrogant’ and ‘incompetent’ media, as well as internal party struggles. At the centre of a few controversies since quitting politics – and still unable to keep his big mouth shut, rein in his abrasive pen or control his powerful arms – Latham has since retired to a country home with his wife and two sons.

The above are just a few examples, from but one Western country, of personal happiness and family taking precedence over career, fame and ambition.  Although popular perception is of a materialistic West as opposed to an East which values family and personal happiness, I can’t think of a single similar example among Pakistan’s powerful, rich and famous.

Few ever voluntarily retire or come to terms with life in retirement.  In one of his columns (“Le petit mort”, Daily Times, 13 November 2005), Ejaz Haider described a visit to the home of a bureaucrat friend on the verge of retirement:

“The pain on his face was visible. . . The joie de vivre was gone, as was the confident booming voice and the haughtiness without which no respectable bureaucrat can go through life. Suddenly, he looked frail, almost like a cancer patient for whom the bell is tolling. . . . There was sadness all round the house. Even Begum Sahiba, a fair-complexioned, robust and rotund lady who, on a good day could do Maggie Thatcher proud, seemed to have slunk away, the light in those eyes visibly dimmed.”

About two decades ago, a well-known columnist Hafizur Rahman, himself a retired government official, wrote about how retired senior bureaucrats’ wives would reminisce their husbands’ former postings in positions of pelf and power in the first person plural (example: when “we” were Commissioner of Bahawalpur, “we” had  . . .).  A former bureaucrat jokingly referred to this power syndrome as “haath mein danda, gaadi pay jhanda” (wielding the baton in the hand, flying the flag on the car).

An anecdote has it that when, after finishing his studies, a nephew of President Chaudhry Fazal Elahi visited his village, a village minion asked him what he was doing.  To which the young man replied: “I teach at a college”.  When they met again after a few months, the man asked the president’s nephew whether he had got himself a “job” or was he still teaching “boys” (koi naukree shaukree pharee ye, ya hoon vee mundayee parhanday ho).

It is easy to see why, in a country where only pelf and power seem to matter, retirement must seem like a “mini-death”, to borrow a word used by Ejaz Haider.  That brings me to the subject of “real” death, which is the ultimate, absolute and irreversible retirement. 

I have always been amazed by the pervasive fear of death among Muslims although in Urdu someone’s passing away is respectfully referred to as “Allah ko piyaray ho gai” or “apnay parvardigaar say jaa meelay”.  (The English equivalent of both expressions would be: “returned to his or her Creator”.)  One would think that those who take pride in their “ishq-e-Ilahi” (love of God) would welcome the opportunity to meet the Creator, rather than dread the eventuality, but not so.

Returning to the more mundane subject of “mini-death” or retirement, it is easy to see why in Pakistani officialdom it is such a dreadful prospect, for the higher the rise, the harder the fall.  Retirement is much easier to come to terms with in the West, even to be welcomed, for the rich and famous and the powerful there lead normal human lives as far as practicable. 

They go jogging, speak to “commoners”, remain accessible to the public, enjoy jokes at their own expense, make self-deprecating jokes, play sports, go to restaurants, take holidays, occasionally cook, always carry their own bags, stand in line, often drive themselves and, when not driving, sit in the front seat next to the driver, and never use VIP facilities (which don’t exist). What’s most important, they generally respect and follow the law of the land and expect their families and friends to do the same.

Although at a national and group level, Westerners pursue success, wealth and material progress with efficiency and drive, at the personal level most seem to subscribe to the credo of the King of Bhutan, that gross national happiness is more important than gross national product (GNP). 

And happiness is not the product of the sum-total of one’s wealth or power.  Happiness, after all, comes from the simple pursuit of that which brings a smile to one’s face and joy to one’s heart.

(Published in Daily Times, 23 November 2006)

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One Response to To retire or not to retire

  1. Fahd says:

    Relished reading this great article. Thanks.

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