It’s a frequently-heard phrase, especially from my past. In fact, retirement used to be an obsession of mine and the overwhelming majority of my friends and colleagues. We all had a habit of at least once a week (if not once a day) asking the question of somebody moving towards the end of their service: “How long have you got to do?” Unspoken was the end of that sentence, which was invariably “…until you retire?” – everybody on each side of it understood the question and the layers of meaning hidden within. It was a standard question, one which we asked one another in a spirit of friendship and camaraderie; a comforting question which cemented the ‘All in this together’ and ‘I feel your pain’ bonds between us.
No matter what the answer; be it “Too bloody long” or “Only twelve more weeks of nights!” for example, it was a good question to ask and to be asked. For a long time I never really considered what we were doing by answering this question in the ways we did.
Things changed for me when I announced to my friends that I was chasing a personal dream and leaving the job and the country to start a new chapter of life in Canada. The reactions to this news came in two stages; first there were one of two questions:
1. “Are you bloody mad?”
2. “You’re so brave – how do go about doing that?”
Secondly, and usually following very quickly on the heels of either one of those two enquiries, there came what was to become the signature feature of whenever the subject subsequently cropped up; “What about your pension?”.
At first I was mildly surprised to find that in the headlong rush towards achieving a childhood ambition, I had barely thought about the pension situation – surprised and strangely liberated. After the first dozen or so identical enquiries, it began to hit home that the subject of retirement had become – as much for me as anyone else – a full-blown fixation, and reaching pensionable age (after thirty years of service) was indeed something of an occupational obsession. As soon as that realisation dawned on me, the whole question of retiring took on a new, less positive meaning.
Right now I’m inching towards a significant age milestone. Forty nine years was the age that I used to have marked (in blunt crayon, of course) on my life calendar as the age that I would retire from full time employment. The unspoken plan, as for so many of my colleagues, was to finish full time work, take the financial rewards available to me, pay off my mortgage and work on a part-time basis until…well until I didn’t want to do so any more. It was what my father had done, and for many years it seemed like the way to go for me, too. In exactly three months’ time, I reach that magical date; the thirtieth anniversary of my becoming a police officer. It feels quite strange; I can still remember wondering what kind of person I would be when I reached this age.
When I began my police career, official statistics (gathered by dusty bespectacled people in dusty offices, covered in cobwebs and drinking malted milk drinks) indicated that the average ‘survival’ time for a retired cop was seven years. That’s a cold statistic, but as young people we had a kind of fatalistic attitude towards it. It would never happen to us, of course. Regardless of the evidence laid before us, we continued to wish our lives away; to aim for that golden number, to long for retirement. This notion wasn’t even confined to those of us who on balance found the job stressful; even extremely successful people (of whom I definitely wasn’t one) shared the strange sentiment of “How long have I got to do?”. The attitude had become endemic, part of the culture of policing. We all expressed a desire to be finished we were all trying to hurry towards ‘the right time’ and towards some kind of undefined freedom.
Then, people I knew started becoming sick or simply dying. Men (in particular, men) with whom I had worked began to succumb to the inevitable randomness of the universe, and news of debilitating sickness and/or death began to spread through my generation of officers. It wasn’t us – it was the people whom we had looked up to, our former mentors and trainers, our guides and advisors who were starting to falter. Suddenly, dashing towards my fiftieth birthday (and, of course, retirement) started to lose its golden glow. The idea of finishing my thirty years – in effect just so that I could wear a figurative badge to say so - began to pale.
One day, not long after I had made my monumental leap across the Atlantic ocean (to the sustained shock and mild horror of my friends), a colleague I had worked with many times and with whom I got along with very well, reached his final day of work. Fit and physically active every day, Alan finished his last day of work as a copper and with a spring in his step, went home to face the reality of finally being retired and of enjoying the results of that thirty year wait.
He died within hours. It felt like a sick joke to those of us who knew him.
As of this moment, I have no plans to retire – no plans to stop working completely. In fact, I don’t have many plans at all; instead I prefer to live on a day-to-day basis with my family around me, and trying my best to enjoy where I am, who I am with and what I have. There is for me no pot of gold at the end of a thirty-year rainbow, no magical number that means that I have somehow ‘deserved’ the right to rest from X number of years of back or heart-breaking and stressful toil. Those kinds of plans, you see, tend to delay and push away my enjoyment of life – they seem to predicate happiness upon having first served some kind of penal sentence (i.e. work); the kind of sentence that very few criminals ever serve AFTER proving that they deserve to be locked away.
Plans for enjoying myself in the future tend to rest upon the idea that that probably am not enjoying myself right now – and the problem with that is; it isn’t true. I am currently enjoying my life and, well… I’m rather pleased about that. With the support and encouragement of my partner for life, I’m doing things today that I might otherwise have deferred to some indistinct moment in time somewhere in the future. It seems like common sense to me – after all, we know that ‘all things come to he who waits’ is frankly a load of old bollocks.
Our neighbour is a pleasant, friendly fellow and we occasionally share views upon the world while leaning on our respective garden implements; he’s a methodical, manicuring gardener with perfect trees, bushes and lawns while I’m about growing food and not interested in much else except keeping the grass looking less than a wild meadow (although I’d much rather it was a meadow) in order to keep the local authorities off my back. He is doing the ‘when I retire’ thing, and for the last three years he’s talked about retiring with an increasing enthusiasm, until last Autumn when he confided in me that 2014 was the year – retirement was about to happen. Guess what – his beloved wife is now, a mere few months later, in a fight for her life, battling a returned cancer. All those plans, all that waiting… All those things that, no matter what the outcome of this battle may be, will now never be what they dreamed about.
I’m going to England with my wife soon. We can’t really afford to, but f*** it, we’re doing it anyway – we’re embracing the idea that waiting ‘for the right time’ is a fool’s errand – ‘the right time’ is an invisible dream, a will o’ the wisp that we could spend the rest of our lives trying to grab hold of. All the while we’re chasing it, the random nature of the universe (or if you prefer; the will of an apparently merciless god or gods) might strike any of us down without warning or – and this bit really pisses me off – even the faintest sign of balance or fair play. Don’t believe me? Think about this: For every innocent child battling hunger or disease there is a sick, evil bastard somewhere out there living out a full life span (how many Nazi death camp guards have we heard about over the years since the war ended?)…how’s that for ‘mysterious ways’? Don’t try to tell me that we can look into the future with any guarantees.
The universe is indeed utterly random; don’t wait to chase a dream than can never be guaranteed; reach out and grab it now.
I know a number of people who – and some of them are older than me –are waiting for ‘the right time’ to do something they have always wanted to do. They are, by and large, the same people who expressed wonder, admiration and even fear about the decisions I made fifteen years ago, when I basically took a chance and emigrated with my young family. They are also (some of them, anyway) the people who are now rather envious of where I live and the lifestyle we have managed to create here. Whenever they point out that I’m lucky, I gently (well, almost gently) point out that it’s not luck; it’s making certain decisions that has led me to this point and place in my life.
I enjoy my life because I didn’t wait. I enjoy my life because I made some decisions – some of them very difficult decisions – which changed the course of my life. I feel stress when I don’t do things, when out of old habit I unconsciously make myself wait to do something; to try something. I feel stress when I notice that I’m not living; but when I’m deferring aspects of my life to some undefined point in time which will be the ‘right’ time. I do this less and less these days.
If you find yourself wishing away your career and looking forward to retirement; you’re in the wrong job and wasting at least a third of your life doing something you don’t enjoy. If you’re waiting for the right time to fulfill your dream or dreams, you’d better have cause to be very sure that you’ll get to that mystical point in time able to do what you hope for. If you have such confidence, I suggest to you that it’s a delusional confidence that ignores all the things that happen around us each day.
Chase your dreams (please! Go for it!), reach for those goals, but don’t assume that the universe is going to align with your wishes; as history has shown us through the lives of others, it simply doesn’t work that way.