This Monday Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world by resigning, making him the first pope to do so in 600 years. The media was immediately abuzz with countless instant articles on the legacy of “God’s Rottweiler.” Most of it was written by non-Catholics, none of whom have a dog in the fight, but that didn’t stop them from rambling on.
A non-Catholic myself, my response was nonetheless admiration: the Pope knew when to call it a day. As a spiritual leader of 1.2 billion people, it must be difficult to get up in the morning and deal with all that responsibility when you’re geriatric and sickly. I can barely be bothered with it myself, and I’m 47 years younger than Benedict and a spiritual leader of nobody. But power has a strong allure, and very few people surrender it willingly.
In fact, this is the second high-profile abdication in the space of a month. In January the Queen of the Netherlands also announced she was quitting. By and large though, most popes and monarchs die on the job. I’m sure my own queen, Elizabeth II, will keep going until she’s 250 and comprised largely of cyborg parts.
Personally, I think that jacking it in when you get too old is an excellent idea. It’s particularly vital in the entertainment industry, where 99 percent of actors and singers carry on way past the point of relevance, often besmirching their own legacies as a result.
Some years ago, my mom went to see the great ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev on his farewell tour. By this point he was in his fifties and close to death. Younger dancers did most of the work, but occasionally Nureyev would shuffle on stage and stand on one leg for a few seconds. It was a sad spectacle. Pavarotti was the same, I hear: long after his voice had deteriorated beyond repair, he’d waddle onto famous stages, blast out a few off-key notes and then waddle off again to eat pasta and count his money.
In popular culture it’s even worse. In late January, for instance, the 65-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who could happily retire knowing that he has achieved incredible things, limped back onto the big screen with the movie “The Last Stand.” It grossed a feeble $7 million on its opening weekend.
Then there’s pop music. I want to stab myself in the face every time I see Paul McCartney pulling the same cheeky mop-top expressions and poses that he did 50 years ago. I was also mildly traumatized by the spectacle of 102-year-old Mick Jagger gyrating in a pink suit in the video for “Miracle Worker,” a song by his thoroughly unnecessary side project Superheavy. His primary group, The Rolling Stones, degenerated into their own tribute act decades ago.
Of course, if old rockers want to continue prancing about on stage, and their nostalgic fans want to give them money, then they are welcome to do so. But it’s not for me. I admire that handful of performers who, like the pope, know when enough is enough, and who actually retire when they say they are going to retire. You know, like Tina Turner, and… Tina Turner… and, well, Tina Turner.
Is she really the only one? I can’t think of any others. Maybe it’s the Buddhism that helps her stay detached from the monstrous demands of the superstar ego.
Politics, too, is full of people who outstay their welcome. Hosni Mubarak was 82 when he was toppled. He’d occupied the presidency for so long that the army wouldn’t back him when the people rose up in protest. Perhaps if he’d handed the reins of power over to a successor earlier, the revolution would have never happened. I well remember Margaret Thatcher’s tears as she was kicked out of office, dethroned by her own party, while the American senate teems with zombies such as the longtime segregationist Strom Thurmond, who died in office at the age of 101.
I think it will be interesting to see how events unfold in Russia over the next couple of years. Many outside observers wrote Putin off when he returned to the presidency, but so far he has proven quite adept at maintaining his grip on power. But eventually everybody loses his mojo, and I wonder if even a shrewd chess player like Putin will know when to quit.
It is healthy, of course, for old people to stay active. A problem only arises when folk well past their prime insist on occupying posts younger and stronger individuals could handle better. The Soviet Union had a serious problem with this, especially in the 1980s, when the handful of men who had been leading the country for four decades insisted on dying one after another.
And thus I salute Benedict XVI, soon to be mere Joseph Ratzinger again, who one day wisely decided: enough. Maybe now he can go on a cruise, or take up gardening, or do whatever it is that ex-popes do. Actually it’s pretty much up to him to invent that role – which might be a job in itself.