Five Years On

As I begin my sixth year as a “retired” person, I can no longer claim that I am “in transition” between having a career and not having one.  The career ended and the transition is over.  I am unequivocally retired, yet I have continued to feel uncomfortable about being in retirement.

“Retirement” connotes something negative, something given up, a loss of position.  At the outset of my retirement, I worried about being no longer useful.  But as I look back at the last five years, I see that I have managed to be useful to others, though perhaps in a narrower sense than I felt during the last decade or so of my working life.

My work had a greater impact and affected more people than anything I have done since I closed the door on my career.  Admitted, it is merely my own perception about the significance of what I did for a living.  The fruits of my labor were under-appreciated at the time and are less than legendary now.  Those thirty or forty years of work that I call my career—did it matter?  By retiring, I allowed my life to become irrelevant to my career.

Or, to be more positive, retirement has made my career no longer relevant to my life.

I do not feel regret for choosing to end my career.  I feel grateful for having the choice.  My work—and my wife’s work—made that choice possible.  It is toward our younger selves that I now feel gratitude.

Gratitude is affirmative.  That was my first clue.  I now believe that there can be something deeply affirmative about retirement.  Retirement is an accomplishment, not a loss.  It is a new opportunity, not a final defeat.

The word “retirement” dates from the sixteenth century out of the Old French “re-“ (back) plus “tirer” (to draw), meaning “to withdraw.”  It has the sense of removing oneself from someplace and to someplace—often meaning to a place of privacy or seclusion.

It is that place of privacy that should be viewed affirmatively.  Retirement is a retreat, yes, but not a defeat.  The army, withdrawn from the field of battle, occupies its stronghold.  There is privacy within the castle walls.  There is a world of privacy in retirement.

In that period of transition into retirement, I found myself shaking off the twin sensations of the Never-Ending Weekend and Retirement Guilt.  At times, I felt liberated from a Monday-to-Friday work schedule.  I no longer had to maintain the delicate life/work balance between five-day job responsibilities and two-day weekends when my responsibilities were largely about doing household chores.  There was so little time left over for simply enjoying life that I almost convinced myself that household chores were pleasurable.  Career was at the center of my life.  Even on those weekends of more or less fun, work overshadowed me as Monday Morning Dread set in on Sunday afternoons.

When I retired, I was quick to discover that every day felt like a Saturday or Sunday and that the dread for Mondays was only a phantom.

The other post-career sensation—feeling guilty for retiring—was more pernicious.  It was the feeling that I had “given up” too early when I could have continued my productive working years.  There was something shameful about retirement.  I should not have thrown in the towel.  I had to justify myself to myself by claiming the right to retire at a youngish 63 thus sparing myself the nightmare of keeling over on the job.

Both of these feelings have faded if not completely vanished from my mind.  Retirement as a never-ending weekend remains an apt description in a technical sense, I suppose.  But I cannot remember the last time I felt Monday Morning Dread or Retirement Guilt.

My experience of retirement is changing.  A new rhythm has emerged.  It is as though, withdrawn from the ambient chatter of work and career, I have heard my life much better.  I cannot say that I am accomplishing much—but I am not obliged to accomplish anything.  Instead I am guided a lot by what I find enjoyable.

I did not face retirement as a task that I had to analyze and plan for.  When I retired, I did not know what would happen next, and I still don’t.  It is all a new piece of music and I am listening for the harmony of the moment.  One way or another, my days are full and not without pattern.

I have come to acknowledge the affirmative in retirement.  In a private way, this act of withdrawing is a gift that I gave to myself.  I am aware of the passing of time, and in whatever time I have left I want to celebrate that gift.

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