The Observer


John Wright


Recently an old friend told me that he was facing pending retirement with anxiety, for he feared becoming a useless piece of societal sludge. His accomplishments have been many and of those a number have been quite significant. This individual is one of the most open and curious people I have ever known, and when he decides to tackle something new he works diligently until he conquers it. He is also highly intelligent and personable. I found myself wondering why he of all people would fear retirement, for someone with his skills and curiosity and financial security should find retirement to be a marvelous opportunity to have time to learn and do many new things denied earlier in life due to time constraints.

There are a number of reasons why a dynamic individual might fear retirement. One is that, once out of the career mainstream, one is quickly forgotten and powerful sources of information for keeping current in a given field are lost. Another is that basic introverts, and he is one, lose one environment in which they receive much-needed social interaction. I think it right to generalize and say that fear of isolation is an underlying problem, and that problem can be compounded if the primary source of social involvement during a focused career has essentially diminished non-career acquaintances and possibly family, nuclear or extended.

One of the realities of retirement is that most of us tend to narrow gradually the variety of our social involvements to those who have been most important to us outside the working environment. Given a rich assortment of friends and family, that reality is generally not a problem. Also, time available to us via retirement is a marvelous chance to expand our social interests and involvements Ö if only we identify something to do that we find meaningful that involves meeting new people.

My friend is considering teaching part time at the college level. Most certainly that activity will provide social involvement. Alas, in the course of a career many of us do teach others in formal environments, and some of us find the experience to be boring due to endless repetition of material. Well, who knows? Perhaps the social involvement is enough to make the experience worthwhile. For his sake I hope so.

To be literal, his expressed concern sounds more like someone who values himself based on his societal role and productivity rather than one who fears social isolation. If that is the whole story, he is in trouble, for the only individuals immune to being discarded via forced retirement are those who own and operate their own businesses. Yes, those folks tend to walk the treadmill until they are about to die, they continue to value themselves until they are physically or mentally unable to work, and then they perish, never knowing other parts of life that might have been rewarding as primary activities.

So much for the discussion of my friend. He is but one representative of a class of people who by the act of retirement make the very large transition from feeling connected to wondering how to find new meaning in life. This is the point where I come into the picture to offer some very different perspectives. I too have been through the process, and I must say from the outset that success for me involved expansion of alternative ways of looking at the meaning of life and use of the time we have left after retirement. It has also helped immensely that my younger wife has maintained and enhanced our standard of living through notable career success.

The first step is to re-examine formally (that means write and keep current a list) all of oneís basic understandings, beliefs and prejudices about what is important, and to apply those considerations to a hypothetical individual at all ages from infancy to death. What results is a set of variable expectations, not a fixed view of the adult work ethic. The exercise begs the questions about the world before birth and the world after death. It kind of puts things into perspective. That is key to opening the door to redefining oneself in a positive manner.

A second step is to identify as many important and nagging subjects as possible that represent incomplete understanding, with the objective of finding answers to lifelong questions. I am talking about closure in understanding life. In the course of living virtually all of us have loose ends and incomplete understanding of many subjects. Some of those subjects will remain forever unknown as we lack interest in their pursuit. Others, however, represent areas of partial understanding, or the lack of understanding, that are important to round out the individual.

Being fixated in values relative to the work ethic is trouble. I will use a humorous and pathetic example to make my point. I once knew an individual who was in trouble for dealing illegal drugs. He had apparently been quite successful and used to enjoying all the trappings of wealth and wild living associated with that way of life. He also had no other developed skill set. I asked him what he would do once he got past his legal problems. The answer was obvious Ö he would continue to deal drugs. I then asked what he would do with his life if he had five million dollars squirreled away in profits. He provided the same answer. I then bumped the number up to twenty million and again asked the question. The answer remained the same. Finally, I asked him what he would do if he had almost all the money in the world. Yes, the answer remained the same. In short, the problem was one of self definition and ignorance, not one of financial security or ability to obtain any material thing the world had to offer. He was fixated in his ignorance.

It is fair to note that as we age we lose physical abilities. No matter how fit we are at any stage of life our decline is inevitable, and put simply that means we decrease the variety and intensity of our more physical activities. Thus, while one might be a good tennis player for an eighty year old, there comes a point where continued effort to play tennis becomes silly. One might instead take long walks. To seek good health by remaining fit is a good objective, yet the end of the game is stasis, and then death. It is thus important to know what one wants to do with the extra time provided by staying fit, for fitness is means to various ends, not an end in itself, and disappointing limits hit everyone sooner or later. Suddenly one realizes that having stayed fit one now must have something useful to do, by oneís own definition, besides beat the tennis ball and eat the five thousandth steak!

I am not qualified to speak for all retired people. One thing I do know about retirement is that interests and activities dropped earlier in life by necessity now come to the foreground. There will not be time or energy to become expert as one did in a career, but there is time to learn and, hear this, to play. Most important there is plenty of time for expansion of activities in things we know we liked to do, and development of new interests. Where once I might have built a house, now I can build furniture. If I did not understand economics, I can take classes and round out my understanding of such things as globalization. If I enjoyed building racecars I can make the finest go-kart for my grandchild.

Indeed, if one has learned many subjects, there is an opportunity to mentor the young in multiple environments. Yes, giving of oneself without financial compensation yields the essential results of feeling useful and generous, and I cannot overstate the importance to each of us to feel both. Frankly, it doesnít matter how one achieves that result, but failure to do things that make one feel useful and unselfishly contributive is the path to an early death, first in a small way via depression and then in the physical sense. To become a true sludge is the worst possible way to experience retirement. It is easily avoided.

We sometimes hear people talk about "letting go." I suppose that is necessary if I find cancer or some other "incurable" illness gives me only three months to live. In less than certain fatal circumstances, letting go can be sensible or stupid. The cold logic of pending death fails to include the consideration of the time I have left before death. While it is right to be sensible about my ultimate demise I am a fool if I let that reality ruin my time to enjoy life now. I only let go of those things inappropriate to one of my health and age. All other things I hold dear, and I continue to look for new areas of interest and involvement.

Now lets look at the source of our actions and helpful ways to change gracefully. Most things most of us do during a career are by means of directives from our employers. They tell us what to do in general terms, we do those things in detail with the personal touch of talent and imagination, we get paid and taxed, etc., in what seems to be an endless escalating pattern. If we look back at our school years we find the same pattern with more limited compensation. The only time we might remember when we were not compelled to perform labor is that period from birth to elementary school, and perhaps our summer vacations. It is no wonder that our work ethic so colors our thinking that it is nearly impossible to imagine life without it. The contrast of our vacations, our cooling down periods, to our work efforts is about all we have to understand the meaning of being rather than doing. Does that make sense?

At a practical level we had to work to survive financially. At a practical level we had to be productive to feel important. Our vacations were actually provided to keep us functional at the work place, i.e., to avoid burnout and subsequent lowered productivity. All of a sudden we find that we are old, not in need of regular work income because we saved money for retirement, and, BANG!, our whole model of life related to the work ethic collapses. We learn to our chagrin that we are no longer wanted by our employers, and for the most part not wanted by other possible employers in the capacity we worked.

It is obvious that we have to do the oft mentioned "paradigm shift" in our thinking Ö in our self-definition excluding the work ethic. The unobvious key to so doing is in recognizing that life with complete freedom to choose how we spend all days is a far more natural state than the life we lived from elementary school to the present. Who, pray tell, ever had the right to even suggest that a life of labor was the only reasonable way to value oneself? We were deceived, by apparent practical necessity, to subordinate our natural inclination to play instead of work. That simple realization is powerful in helping us make our paradigm shift in values, and then to use our retirement for play. The world didnít need us before we were born, it will forget us when we die, what we did while working was, for most of us, only of very temporary value to our employer and to our society. Make the shift in your thinking and you will be free to enjoy retirement, unshackled from your force fed embedded beliefs about work=value. Did you or did you not earn the right to make the change?

Having made your change in how you value yourself, you are then ready to become an Observer. No, an observer is not a simple-minded spectator. An observer is one who works diligently for self only to understand the meaning of life and the meaning of all human activities that have occurred since early-recorded history. The observer is ready to learn, to expand knowledge, to compile, to imagine, to create, to help others, unfettered by externally imposed responsibilities. You become your own dynamo and your own reason for all the work you might choose to do. The dual benefits are in self-improvement and in having serious intent and useful product from your "play." You will be proud of what you create and it will be your legacy. You set all limits and unwind according to how you feel at any moment. That is real freedom. That is what retirement can be for those perceptive enough to change.

To conclude, we donít have to become philosophers, we simply have to identify and do things that we enjoy that are age appropriate and products of our own interests and talents, not from external impositions. We must also derive our pleasure, in part, from unselfish giving of our time and our knowledge. Old and proud and content? You bet!