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Anyone seen Theresa?

Maybe Theresa May is off on a well-earned walking holiday with husband Philip. That has often been their way to escape pressure. Maybe she is on some alpine trail somewhere along which the paparazzi can no longer be bothered to trudge for a photo opportunity. No cabinet red box to sort. No ministerial car to pick her up. No world crisis to untangle. It must feel very strange to focus on her small constituency in Maidenhead rather than on Europe, Trump, Putin, the world, etc, etc. All column inches and sound-bites now focus on her unworthy successor. Actually it must be very strange now just to be Theresa. Love her or loathe her, she has, I think, always genuinely believed in the value of public service. She deserves my respect for that if not my vote. I hope she enjoys her holiday – she deserves it.

Yesterday Helen and I happened to watch a documentary about the demise of May’s only female predecessor in Number 10 – the so-called ‘Iron Lady’. I had forgotten a little the controversial figure Margaret Thatcher cut and her sometimes extraordinary arrogance. What struck me most, however, was the story of her rapid descent from dominance via hubris to obscurity and eventually dementia. It is fascinating to see how leaders who have spent so long in the public eye, manage to cope when their office, their role, their reason for getting up in the morning, is stripped away from them. Who are they when they disappear into the slow invisibility of retirement?

This is not only a question for public figures. It comes, or will come – I hope we have some younger readers out there - to all of us. We are often asked ‘how we are enjoying retirement?’ We ask the same of others eager to glean a few tips for navigating the tricky currents of advancing age. You can almost guarantee that the first breath of a response will contain the word phrase ‘keep busy’. That is all well and good. That is healthy for anyone.

It is not healthy however simply to respond in terms of doing. We must give some space to being. Alongside ‘keeping busy’ will appear the phrase ‘keeping well’. So, very often responses to the ‘enjoying retirement’ question also includes a report on various ailments which may be helpful if kept brief. If we know that an acquaintance is struggling with some health problem it may help us to understand better their behaviour and perhaps to be a support to them. It is obvious but easy to forget that retirement is accompanied by ageing – it is not quite like an extended holiday.

But what would happen if I were to reply to the ‘enjoying retirement’ question by saying that I was spending some time thinking about my relationship with my father and how that had affected my life, or more time in contemplative prayer, or confronting my own selfishness, or surveying my regrets about life? It may well lead to an uncomfortable silence, and a little resentment that I had crossed the lines of polite conversation. And yet I suspect a great deal of this is going on under the surface of formula responses to the retirement question.

Having a ‘lot of interests’ is important but it is also important to know a little of your own soul. Theresa May has said that her Christian faith has encouraged her and her love for hiking has maybe given her some opportunity to reflect. It’s an opportunity that I want to take whenever I can during my ‘busy retirement’. As Socrates is reputed to have said not long before his own death, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’

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