- Retirement can pack an emotional and existential wallop. Take a break before redirecting yourself.
- Letting go of a lifetime of work is a great opportunity to practice what the Sufis call “sacred drift.”
- Retirement may be the end of work, but not of evolving. Ask, “In how many ways can I continue to evolve?”
Whenever I visited my father at the factory he owned in New York, he would usher me into the back office—which was his father’s before him—and motion toward a green vinyl couch in the corner. He would then position himself across the room, in a high-backed leather chair beneath a shield and two crossed swords, at a mahogany desk big enough to play a couple of rounds of golf on. He would lean his elbows on the desk, fist in palm, and look at me over his bifocals—a posture I took to be one of intimidation, or, perhaps, camouflage.
On one particular visit, I invited him to come out from behind the desk and sit with me on the green vinyl couch.
Long pause. Then he rose and walked slowly around the desk, keeping his fingers on it the whole time, breaking contact only at the last possible moment, before crossing that moat between us. When he finally sat next to me, I thought I saw on his face a look of pride mixed with sheepishness.
This is one of the memories that came to me recently as I began deliberating about retirement, or rewirement, or call it what you will. A desk is emblematic of work-life, and stepping out from behind it—whether momentarily or permanently—is an act of vulnerability. And courage. It’s re-positioning yourself in relation to the world, to others, and to your own sense of power. In fact, any role you inhabit is, in part, motivated by the desire for power, and we don’t generally like letting go of power, as human history demonstrates with brutal and protracted eloquence.
The readiness or willingness to even consider letting it go by relinquishing our work-life is sometimes fueled by nothing more than a hunch that there are other involvements equally worthy of our energies as the contributions we’ve made through our work, equally compelling and valuable, if not moreso: the building (or re-building) of relationships and community, the enjoyment of the natural world, the exploration of the spiritual life, the calls of elderhood, or the making of some peace with yourself that has so far eluded you.
At the end of his life, psychologist Abraham Maslow changed his famous hierarchy of needs pyramid, at the bottom of which was always food-clothing-and-shelter and at the top of which was “self-actualization”—which he replaced with “self-transcendence.” He realized that self-actualization is still about the self seeking it's own potential, still about tinkering with the ego, whereas transcendence is a decentralizing of self, an extending of awareness and frame of reference beyond your own borders.
Self-actualization isn't the be-all and end-all, but a transitional goal, and retiring its agendas isn’t just about pocketing a gold watch, moving to Florida, and playing golf, not that there’s anything inherently wrong with any of those things. But retirement may confront you in the most profound and often rattling ways with who you are, how you operate in the world, and how attached you are to your mental models. Or, more to the point, who you are now, and what parts of you want airtime in the time remaining.
And this won’t unfold at the flick of a switch. A lifetime of working—certainly of striving to attain the mythic summit of your potential—generates a tremendous momentum that doesn’t end just because work ends. It’s a bit like a head-on collision. The car stops, but the passenger doesn’t.
The books I’ve been reading lately about retirement certainly speak of the challenges of losing a sense of identity, purpose, and power, but they instruct me to get busy again as soon as possible, filling up my calendar with new sources of these commodities, filling up the presumed holes in my sense of meaning and contribution left by the cessation of my work-life.
Short shrift is given to the hard human work of making peace with the emotional and existential wallop of it (at least for many people) and the need to unabashedly face ourselves inside that vacuum. Because there is the backside of ambition, the downside of upward mobility, the brute existential fact of getting old and fading from view, and the imperative of learning to manage losses and endings. There is the truth that if your sense of value is pegged to visible achievement and external validation, you’ll be freaked out at the prospect of retirement.
To say nothing of the anxiety about whether you can even afford to retire.
But it’s critical to understand that even if you identify hugely with your work, have loved it, and will miss its benedictions, it isn’t your identity any more than the tip of an iceberg is an iceberg. Letting go of a career isn’t letting go of your true work in the world, not if you have what people call "a mission statement for your life."
Let’s say your deepest calling, your soul’s work, if you will, is to model and educate (literally draw out) passion and self-expression in yourself and others—say as a teacher, life-coach, or performer. This isn’t something you retire from any more than you can retire from your personality. Such a mission is big enough to encompass a lifetime’s worth of activity in a multitude of arenas, not just a career, and certainly not just a job. (A good primer on crafting a mission statement is a book called The Path, by Laurie Beth Jones.)
Early in the conversation with myself about retirement, while still stoned on self-actualization, I signed up for a weekend retreat on “designing your life.” But months later, on the morning it began, I woke up feeling deflated. “I don’t want to design my life. I want to listen to it.”
The word retirement comes from the old French retirer, meaning "to go off into seclusion"—which is precisely what makes the prospect of retirement unnerving, but precisely what I sense needs to happen before I start scripting my retirement and spread-sheeting my future. That is, I need a break, a pitstop. Time to reflect and engage in what the Sufis call “sacred drift.” Time to let my soul catch up with my new circumstances, to celebrate my contributions, perhaps even do some griefwork around letting them go.
“What is your karmic assignment right now?” the author John Kabat-Zinn asked the audience at a conference I recently attended called Wisdom 2.0. “And if it’s not-knowing, that may be the most powerful assignment of all.”
Indeed, my impulse at this juncture is to not be impulsive, not just hop from one train to another, but step off the track altogether for a little while. Motion isn’t necessarily progress any more than noise is necessarily music, and before I jump to problem-solving, I want to consider that retirement isn’t a problem to solve but a passage to navigate, and that I’m certainly not going to retire from evolving, or continuing the work of becoming myself, if not transcending myself.
In fact, rather than focusing on what my next iteration is going to look like, what new roles I can invent for myself, perhaps the better question is, “In how many ways can I practice evolving?” Or, “In how many ways can I express my mission statement?”
During this not-knowing period that I’ve been allowing myself for the past six months or so, this eddying-out from the current, I’ve been feeling the hunger to create a retirement ritual for myself, a rite of passage to commemorate the relinquishment of the work-life I’ve known for almost 50 years. And then, a few weeks ago—the universe and its mysterious ways being what they are—a ritual found me. An unplanned and perfectly fitting retirement ritual.
My desk—and what’s more iconic of work-life than a desk?—broke apart in attempting to move it. The desk on which I’d written all of my books, hundreds of articles and blog posts, and from which I’d orchestrated my entire freelance and speaking careers. It was a most literal break with tradition, and a more appropriate observance I can’t imagine.