I recently closed my 40+ years practice of psychological counseling. As I approached that landmark, I found that I had to apply to myself advice I’d offered to many others over the years: “Don’t just think about what you are moving away from. Think about what you are moving towards.” Easier said than done.
Like many people in my age group, work was a major part of my identity. I grew up in a culture in which work was a part of life. Thus, I had my first job when I was 14. I worked for several summers as a mailman. I worked summers in factories. In my family there was never pressure to work. It was just part of the progression of life.
That work mentality gave rise to a tendency to judge myself if I felt I wasn’t being productive. The Buddhists say that, when one meditates, one eventually confronts one’s compulsion. Thus, when I would attempt traditional meditation, I would invariably be faced by thoughts such as “You should be doing something more productive. Get back to work!”
I did not have to retire. I am blessed with good health and have most of my mental marbles. That in many ways was a factor in my decision. I wanted to walk away from my work on my terms. I recalled an episode from MASH in which Colonel Potter fears that he has lost his ability as a surgeon and should retire. Sidney the psychiatrist advises him to not base such a decision on fear. I didn’t want to wait until I felt I could no longer do the work.
Retirement also opened the door on a number of activities that had been limited by work. These included my writing as well as my regular participation in a 12-Step support group. However, the compulsion to be productive has not simply vanished.
Spiritually, too, there has been a challenge. My work has a therapist may at times have been stressful but it also offered a steady stream of activity that had great meaning for me. That need to find meaning in my life is still strong.
Similarly, my work facilitated whatever social contact I needed. Retirement presented me with a challenge to meet social needs in other ways. Given that my reputation in the El Paso professional community was, in part, that I am reclusive, the easy path, not a healthy one, would be total withdrawal.
The other major spiritual challenge presented by retirement is fear. I certainly struggle with a fear of losing financial security. I fear the possibility of deteriorating health or failing mental abilities. I fear becoming dependent on loved ones. I fear becoming depressed as my father did after his retirement. The best that I can do in facing those fears is to focus on that over which I have control.
I have also come to see that my retirement has been an adjustment for my wife and children. Thankfully I am blessed with a solid marital relationship but, for over 40 years, my wife would go about her business each day with she and I reconnecting when I cam home usually after 7 PM. My children, too, have understood the importance of work in my life and so, from a distance, are watching as we adjust.
I have had to take a hard look at myself. I knew I would need some structure to my days, in large part because that was what I was used to. As a recovering addict, I had to remind myself how dangerous boredom can be. I have had to face the likelihood that I did not manage the stress of my work as well as I thought I had been. That has been humbling.
I have known too many people who found themselves bored and lonely in retirement. As one retired executive told me, “I feel like I’m just sitting around waiting to die.”
The challenge for me and for all who retire willingly or unwillingly is summed up by Gandalf:
Reflection: If you are retired, what learnings can you share from that journey.