What does it mean to retire besides leaving your job? What do you do when you don’t have to do anything? How do you think of yourself once you’re a “senior citizen”? Should society re-conceptualize this stage of life?
I have a personal interest in the question. I’m 69 and will be 70 next month. When I retired from my job in 2012, the obvious stared me clearly in the face. Work had filled my life for years, not just my time, but my sense of who I was. I found status, friendship, value through the job. I was a teacher and felt gifted to be paid to creatively help other people. Now, my life sometimes seems like an extended vacation, or continual snow day. Other times, it’s confusing. It seems like I am watching myself grow old. What do you do when your retirement stops being a sudden holiday and you have no set of obligations to take up most of your time?
I had a plan, too. When I retired, I would do things that I wanted to do since I was six or eight, or 18, namely write a book, or do things I didn’t allow myself to do when working. To be a writer when I was 20, I would need to make a good deal of money at it. Now, I’m luckily (and hopefully) free from that demand. The book I wanted to write as a child was a great adventure novel. The one I’ve written as a retiree is about education, compassion and critical thinking—a very different kind of adventure. I turned writing into another form of work. Is this what I want retirement to be? I have hopefully 20-plus years of life left. How do I want to live it?
One approach would be to work for political-social change and resist the increasing threats to democracy rising in the world today. I could continue doing projects that felt meaningful, serve others and bring joy. When I finished college, joy was not the first criterion I had for choosing a job. Working for the benefit of others instead of only for your own profit, not only can change your community for the better but change your feeling about life. When you work only for your own profit, you feel lacking, that you never have enough. When you give to others, you feel valued and that you have something valuable to give. Retirement can provide the chance to change priorities.
The religious scholar, Huston Smith, in his book The World’s Religions, describes two stages of life beyond work or beyond the “householder stage” in traditional forms of Hinduism. There is the retiree stage and then the sannyasin. He says not everyone reaches either of them. The retirement stage is where one turns inwards to answer life’s deepest questions. You leave home, even your spouse and family, and become a “forest dweller” or a wanderer. You give up all your ties and live with “nothing” between you and reality. Your life is driven by questions: what makes life worthwhile? Of what value to society is old age? Is self-understanding truly important? What is the secret of ‘I’? This is a time of transcending the five senses “to dwell in the reality which underlies the natural world.” (53)
A sannyasin is a renunciate, “one who neither hates nor loves,” according to the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred books of India. A sannyasin has found self-realization and can return to the world, because everywhere is home, everything is enlightening.
I have no desire to leave home, give up my wife, or cats. But, in some sense and in a small but meaningful way, I have done so. By giving up my job, I have given up my home there, given up a busy but scheduled, seemingly predictable life, a life centered on doing and earning, not being.
I remember a discussion that was repeated several times and in different ways with my students. The question was “would you rather live with a comfortable illusion or a discomforting truth?” Or, “Is it right to bury your head in the sand in order to not be overwhelmed by fear or the suffering of others?” It’s a false dichotomy but reveals real questions. Why should I live with no illusions between “reality” and myself? Should my life be guided by what’s comfortable? How much “truth” can I let in? How honest can I be with myself? When you’re 70, this question takes on immediate significance.
I retired when I did partly because I wanted to answer these questions before I died. When I was working, I didn’t like to consider that what I did had value, partly because other people were willing to pay for it. In the U. S., money concerns tend to creep in everywhere. Wasn’t it time, now, to care enough about life itself that I no longer needed to be paid to live it? Can I give each moment the same value I once gave to work? Can I open enough to the world, to others, and value them, feel them, so deeply that I gain security not in material things and other’s opinion of me, but in a sense of what’s right, what is, and what brings joy?
Our society could benefit from re-conceptualizing retirement, not just as a reward for years of hard work, but as important in itself. We all need times in life dedicated to questioning. We need elders to teach us about life and aging. We will (hopefully) all retire and get old. We can’t just bury our heads in the sands of youth. If we don’t think positively of elders, then we will fear aging and thus our lives. We will treat the elderly with disrespect and have years of disrespect waiting for us. How we think of elders is very much how we think about ourselves and life itself.
Before he died, my grandfather told me that he regretted nothing. He had lived a full life. Only by valuing the moments of life can you say this. By learning how to live each moment as openly as you can, you learn one of life’s most important lessons—how to face death openly. This is one reason not to bury your head in the sand in the face of discomfort or the face of others suffering. Both you and the world are poorer for such burials. Maybe learning how to be rich in openness is what retirement is for.
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