What does it mean to retire besides leaving your job? As soon as I thought of this as a topic, I received two related e-mails, which confirmed for me how important the topic is. One was about the book The Age of Dignity, on the great numbers of baby boomers reaching retirement and how to care for so many people. The other was an article about how poor our health care system is in terms of caring for dying people. I’m, however, primarily interested now in what retirement means to the retiree and to society. What do you do when you retire? How do you think of yourself once you’re a “senior citizen”? How can society in general think of this stage of life?
Of course, I have a personal interest in the question. I’m 67, close to 68. When I retired, the obvious stared me clearly in the face. Work had filled my life for years, not just my time but my sense of myself. I found status, friendship, purpose, value through the job. I was a teacher and felt gifted to be paid to creatively help other people. I had a plan, too. When I retired, I would do things that I didn’t allow myself to do when working. I would also do what I wanted to do since I was 6 or 8 or 18, namely write. Of course, when I was 6, I wanted to write about great adventures. Now, I’m writing about retiring, teaching, thinking– a very different kind of adventure. Earlier in my life, I needed to make a good deal of money if I wanted to write. Now, I don’t have to do that. I’m free from that demand.
But I still ask myself: I have hopefully 20-plus years of life left. How do I want to live it?
Huston Smith describes two stages of life beyond work in traditional forms of Hinduism, beyond what he calls the “householder stage.” 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? Is old age worthwhile? 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 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 others suffering?” 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?
I have no desire to leave home, give up my wife, or cats but, in some sense, have I already done so? By giving up my job, I gave up a busy but scheduled, seemingly predictable life, a life centered on doing and earning. Sometimes, retiring seems like an extended vacation, other times, like a curse. What do you do when you have no work, no set of obligations to take up most of the day?
I retired when I did partly because I wanted to answer these questions before I died. Despite what I had told myself, what I did had value partly because other people valued what I did and paid for it. In the U. S., money concerns tend to creep in everywhere. Wasn’t it about time to care enough about life 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 relationship to others and in a sense of what’s right, what “fits the situation,” what is?
All of society could benefit from re-conceptualizing retirement, not just as a reward for years of hard work, but also as important in-itself. We 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 might 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 life itself.
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. This is one reason not to bury your head in the sand in the face of discomfort or the face of others suffering or whatever. Burials are expensive. You pay a price for hiding. The world pays a price for your hiding. Both you and the world are poorer for it. Maybe learning how to be rich in this way is what retirement is for.