I was visiting with a friend not long ago who confessed to a fear of retirement.
“I’m just not sure what I’ll do," he told me, "or maybe of who I will be?”
It’s a reasonable apprehension. Work really does mean a whole lot more than a paycheck. The three Rs that work offers — role, relationships and routine — are important.
Let's start with role. Like it or not, work defines us. “I’m a teacher.” “A cop.” “A dentist.” It's the answer to what is sometimes the first question you’re asked at a party: “What do you do?” However as much people insist that whay you do is not who you are, in America work does provide a defining role and identity — one of the reasons that unemployment is so hard.
But that’s not all. Given the time most Americans put in on the job, work generates many of our most important relationships, that second R. Our work colleagues are the people, apart from immediate family, whom we see most often. Some we like. Others not so much. But either way they fill our lives with daily human encounters and check-ins and, in some cases, deep friendships that go beyond the workplace.
The third R, routine, is something precious that a person may lose in retirement. Even if routine becomes too routine, verging into rut, it provides a comforting pattern to the days and weeks. Pattern or routine gives shape and order to our lives. Too much of it may be a drag, but too little presents problems as well. There’s a reason some retirees struggle with alcohol abuse.
Role, routine and relationships are a lot to give up in retirement, a word that almost inevitably suggests “out to pasture,” “irrelevant” or “game-over.”
Perhaps we need a different word, especially now that people will spend as much as a third of their lives in retirement. With our longer life expectancy in mind, some refer to this time of life as “the third age.” Another friend who has put a fair amount of thought into these topics counsels the importance of identifying the “core values” you want to guide your “third age.”
Five years ago I had a simmering, low-grade fear of retirement. To my surprise that seems to have disappeared. I can think of at least seven reasons why (in no particular order):
1. Grandchildren. One of God’s best inventions. They are funny, entertaining, a newness that you didn’t expect. Moreover, you see them in ways that you didn’t see your own children. You’re close but not as close as you were to your own kids. Sometimes really seeing someone requires a bit of distance. Grandparents have that. In addition, being a grandparent positions you firmly in the ebb and flow of generations. You get that you won’t live forever, that now is precious.
2. An unexpected sense of completion about my core vocation. I had lived that vocation out as a minister, a professor, a writer, a speaker and a consultant for 40 years. While I still do some of those things I have developed, for reasons I can’t quite explain, a sense of completion about my work. I’ve done much of what I wanted to do. I’m at peace passing the baton to others.
3. Discovering other things I wanted to do and enjoyed doing. This hasn't happened right away; it's taken time. Some of the things I wanted to are little things, like taking the bike repair class I had wanted to take for years. Othere are bigger, like working on a book of short stories or drawing up plans to be build the simple, home of our own, something that hadn’t been in the cards until now. This discovery didn't happen right away. It has taken time.
4. Money. On those occasions when people would ask if I was retired my stock answer was, “Nope. Retirement is when someone sends me a check for not showing up. That ain’t happening yet.” But now, incredibly, it is. As a minister in my denomination, I am fortunate to be part of something that is vanishing for many: a pension system. Beyond that there’s Social Security. When I was in my twenties and thirties these later years seemed impossibly far off. But they have come, and I am glad that others encouraged me to make sure I had the financial resources for them.
5. My marriage. For both my wife and I, the last decade of work meant long hours and (for me) lots of travel. Retirement has meant a new priority on our relationship. These early years of retirement have provided an opportunity, really a necessity, to get to know each other all over again and in new ways. This hasn’t always been easy, but it has been rewarding.
6. Friends. As you grow older, you realize the importance of relationships that have persisted through the years and chapters of your life. Both together and individually, my wife and I have put more energy into friendships, nurturing them with time and intention. For my wife that has meant a couple of book groups; for me, more one-on-ones over coffee or beer. Together, it has included gathering every couple months with set groups of friends for dinner and conversation.
7. The elusive “spirituality.” As noted, I have been for many years among the professionally religious, both leading congregations and teaching in colleges and seminaries. Here’s a confession: My prayer life is better and more meaningful now than it ever was in those years. Why? No easy answer, but I do find it easier to keep a pattern of daily prayer or meditation as part of my life than I did when there were too many things on the agenda and too much on my mind. Less is more.
Spirituality is more than prayer. It has something to do with letting go of those roles that meant so much but that created, in a way, a kind of false self. By “false” I don’t exactly mean phony. In life’s middle years we necessarily work at creating a self that works in the world. The third age offers a chance to claim what endures from that time, but also make like a snake and crawl out of a skin that was maybe a little too tight or too sleek. The false self, some call it an “idealized self,” is a necessary creation that serves a purpose in a certain time and place, but isn’t all of — or maybe even the best of — who you are.
The third age is chance to go on a journey to you. It can be a painful journey at times, as you bump up against some hard things you’ve avoided facing. But it can also be a journey of surprise and discovery. Maybe you like yourself more than you ever thought possible. And in liking, even loving yourself, you discover an ability to better love and accept others.
I get that retirement can be daunting, even frightening. It can loom as the place beyond the known world where dragons dwell. But it's okay. The dragons turn out to be interesting, some are even friendly. Life doesn’t need to close or end. In fact, it can open up in surprising and healing ways.