Retirement from Retirement

Retirement from retirement is a time of life that mixes loss, freedom, and self in a blender of advancing age to confront the question of how much being useful and busy is essential to one’s sense of identity and self worth.  Nine years ago this month I retired as the rector of a mid-sized congregation, with only a vague idea of what retirement might bring.  It followed a previous career in government and business overfilled with sidelines in education and community involvement, along with the usual menu of personal difficulties in any life.  Retirement, we expected, would mean relief from the demands of the scheduled work week, and greater opportunity to travel more frequently for longer periods in far away places, and so it has.  But being usefully, successfully busy was also important.  It was how I had spent my life.  So with enthusiasm for new challenges, I dove into into the community work of boards and committees, increased the frequency of serving a small rural church thirty miles distant, and gave as much time as possible to serving as chaplain to our fire department, coroner, and police.  Specializing in emotional trauma, I responded to scenes where it was present, and led critical incident debriefings for first responders.  It wasn’t hard to work in teaching introductory courses on leadership for aspiring fire service officers.  I loved it.  It was a filled, challenging, rewarding nine years that fed my ego.  Oddly enough, it didn’t keep me from getting older, and it didn’t stop me from utter surprise at discovering the onset of diminished physical abilities accompanied by enhanced vulnerability to organ dysfunction. The person in the mirror was not the person I imagined myself to be.  Shocked, I tell you, shocked, even though my wife had tried to tell me.

Now it’s time for retirement from retirement, and it’s a bit uncomfortable.  I guess recognition that it was coming began to take shape a few years ago when I argued with peers that it was time for a new generation to assume leadership roles those of a certain age had acquired and kept as if they were a birthright, and I was among those of a certain age.  I suppose it’s always been that way.  Not so many years ago, senior board members of one organization harrumphed that if we wanted the best in financial advice we needed to talk to Al and Pete.  Pete was dead, Al was in a memory care facility, and none of them were aware of the competency of young experts abounding on every side.  It was time for me to step down and make way, not because I had nothing left to give, but because others were ready, and able.  It can be a bit unsettling to encounter important things happening in the community knowing that younger leadership is capable of handling them without my counsel.  So much adult identity is built around careers and the illusion that we are essential to the smooth running of things.  It isn’t so, and it’s humbling to find that out.  Who wants to be humbled?  We clergy talk about the importance of humility all the time.  It doesn’t mean we want to be humbled.  At least I don’t.  “I can get along without you very well” is not a song I want to hear echoing through the communities that have been so much a part of my life.

On the other hand, my interest in submitting to the demands of doing a job we’ll when it interferes with my play time and nap time has waned.  Doing a job well is the only way to do a job.  So retirement from retirement has arrived, and with it new opportunities.  We are more free to explore all those places in the world that have enticed us since youth.  We can relax, and let others do the heavy lifting.  No curfews, no demands from bosses, no expectations to excel, no tests to pass.  It’s, as one cartoon put it, a teenager’s dream come true, albeit with somewhat less energy and agility.  It’s a freedom not earned but encountered, so it might as well be encountered with joy and thanksgiving.  One way to do that is to make younger friends, as one of my mentors told me many years ago.  And so I have.  There is something invigorating about being with younger people excited about the promise of life unfolding.  It’s comforting to be valued for what you may be able to offer.  Its a time for learning new things, exploring new places, trying new things.  But there is also something invigorating about nourishing long standing acquaintances into friendships that delight in long hours of conversation.  Retirement from retirement makes time for both.

We, my wife and I, are fortunate to have physical and mental health, and sufficient resources to be comfortable in life.  Not everyone does, we know that, but for the time being we do and intend to get the most out of them.  Her art, my writing, and our travels may not contribute to the utility of the market place, but they delight us.  It pays to be prudent and we are, but hunkering down in fear that we might not have enough so let’s do and spend as little as possible seems a miserly, ungrateful way to live the next ten or twenty years.  Being grateful and living generously generates its own rewards in the most unexpected ways.  Who knows what can happen next?  We shall find out.  It’s an adventure into unknown territory.  Here we go.

Leave a Reply