You got to know when to hold ’em,
Know when to fold ’em
-“The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers
In 305 AD, Diocletian, co-leader of Rome, was tired. He felt he no longer had the energy to manage the known world and, as a result, he became the first Roman emperor to retire. Choosing to relinquish authority rather than suffering significant decline while in public office (an office he could rightfully have held until his death), Diocletian demonstrated that he knew when to quit.
Shortly before his death in 1996, Roger Tory Peterson, master birder, read from a prepared speech at Kutztown University. I had both the honor and misfortune of being in attendance. Asked numerous questions by an awestruck fan base, the best he could curmudgeonly extemporize was, “What have I written previously on that topic? I don’t remember anything anymore, so whatever I have written before is your answer.” Sadly, Roger did not know when to quit.
Knowing when to stop, to slow down, to retire, or to relax is never easy. And it’s exceedingly hard to know, and even harder to face, when we have outlived our usefulness. Society, American especially, is all too quick to cast its elders aside and conversely (or perhaps in response to this), the ego nearly always lies by saying to us that we can be competent indefinitely. We want to live forever. We wish to believe that our faculties do not diminish; that we will always be at the peak of our performance. But practically speaking this simply cannot be. Old age advances despite our best efforts, wishes, and fervent prayers.
So it falls to each of us in due time to decide when our best days are past, when our term of leadership, both professionally and privately, has run its course, when it’s better to mentor with dignity in a diminished yet safe capacity, versus stubbornly clinging to the reins of authority. There are no easy answers here and no clear decisions. The ability to self-assess is a private, highly subjective affair and the desires of the ego are never easily cast aside. All too often the once beloved and respected leader, falling into decline, clings desperately, courageously, misguidedly to the last vestiges of authority and in so doing becomes the object of scorn and derision without his knowledge, buttoning a respectable career with an all too publicly sad period of decline, dotage and resentment.
But retirement, be it personal or professional, need not be a dirty word, all too unfortunately associated with uselessness. It can also usher in a well-earned period of grace. Retirement can be rightfully a graceful abdication; a graceful acquiescence that one’s time in the spotlight has passed, a graceful appreciation for one’s personal legacy, and a graced acceptance of the ways, even in a diminished capacity, that one can still contribute. Though societal pressure and attitudes misrepresent the situation, these true graces are only acquired through the self-awareness of knowing oneself; of knowing ones strengths and limitations, of knowing honestly and sincerely when to hold on tight and when to let go and let God. I cannot say in good conscience that I will know when my time is up, or that I will make the graceful choice when presented with one of life’s hardest decisions. But if you are self-aware, if you are a better man than I, and if you are faced with this decision on the immediate horizon, given the choice between indignantly battling the advance of time versus accepting with dignity one’s place in the cosmic wheel, choose grace. It shall set you free.