A teacher friend of mine lamented that so many in her profession basically gave up their lives for their profession. Not this their vocation is unworthy of their effort and sacrifice, but that in retirement they discover that they have not much of a life to enjoy. This is not due to age or infirmary so much as a lack of connection to social circles, no cultivated hobbies, or interests they dare not have desired for so long. My friend’s axiom is that if you didn’t have much of a life during your working years, you won’t have much of one when you retire.
I am certain from both experience and reason this is the case with many other people. The circumstances of the pandemic demonstrated vividly, and sometimes shockingly, this truth. For the first time, as if retired, people can see what it feels like to not be burdened with a work schedule. Of course, everyone reacted in their own way, but we saw an exodus of workers previously willing to be treated as slaves for survival (or sub-survival) wages. We saw many people retire early, permanently. I myself reevaluated the time spent in some organizations I belonged to that I allowed to demand much time from me.
So what does this have to do with heaven? The fact that so many people give up so much for nothing more than the idea of a time when they don’t have to toil. It’s like the Promised Land to them. Atheists rightfully point out that when they choose to be ethical or good, it is not out of fear or reward, and therefore reveals a more honest and admirable condition of a person’s character. But it’s more than that. Do we shirk our responsibilities to make the world a better place because it’s all going to hell anyway and we don’t plan to be here?
In American Christianity at least, personal salvation and social justice have become goal posts at opposite sides of the theological playing field. Among Christian extremists, the denial of works as a means of salvation has crossed the line into a denunciation of good deeds and words, in spite of the whole knowing-a-tree-from-its-fruit thing. (No wonder some church-goers label such things derogatorily as “wokeness” to the point where “Love thy neighbor” would make them wince if they did not recognize its Author.)
I won’t impose here any particular views regarding an afterlife, but I believe there’s something in the Good News about having done this or that to the least of His children. If you don’t take care of business here, how could you be expected to be worthy of doing the same once your human eyes are shed and you see the Divine face-to-face? What if, like in the story of the king dressed as a beggar, you receive on your plate at the palace only what you yourself were willing to give?
The obsession with the afterlife was the result of centuries of religious hope appealing to enslaved and overworked masses. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for such consolation. But what if the sacrifice isn’t to bring the Kingdom of God at hand, but simply to put in your time and perhaps make an extra deposit or two into one’s spiritual 401k? Even if we believe we can’t earn salvation through works, does that excuse idleness? Do we use it as a shield to skirt accountability to our world and fellow human beings in the here and now? I see that every day — and wonder if the tree matches the fruit.
Maybe the best parallel to retirement is this: No matter your circumstance, you still have to live with yourself. Retirement and death may be a major change in venue, but you are the performer, and you’ll be playing the same music you know. You can’t escape from yourself. And if you want any future to be better then now, maybe making now better is the key. Call it karma if you must, but it’s really just becoming the tree that bears the fruit you want yourself and others to eat, now and in the end.