Having stopped work some seven and a half years ago now, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what retirement actually means, and to an extent how to do it, at least for myself.
But before discussing it in detail, I should probably admit to being a little uneasy with the term retirement itself. After all, if we take a look at the etymology of the word and note its history and where it comes from, we see that it first entered into English back in the 16th century, coming from the Middle French “re” and “tirer,” meaning “back” and “to draw.” So, the sense was to draw back, to separate oneself from, to retreat, to withdraw to a place of safety and seclusion. Later on, it took on another specific meaning, that of going to bed. People in the nineteenth century, for example, might well have said, “I think I shall retire now,” and everyone understood that they wished to leave the company and go to their bedroom in order to sleep. Even today, the emphasis seems to be on the leaving of something, on separating oneself from, on pulling out, or absenting oneself from what had come before. Is that, I wonder, what I was thinking of when I retired?
Well, to an extent, I suppose it was. I knew I was leaving a job I’d had for almost twenty years, in a profession I’d practiced for more than forty years. I knew I would no longer be following that same regime of getting up and going to an office each morning, arriving by 7:00 a.m., or so (I always got there early), and dealing with all of the managerial and supervisory issues that once filled my day, to say nothing of a host of policy concerns, as well as the rounds of endless meetings, the official visitors from universities abroad who frequently came by, and numerous other tasks that it was my duty to perform. From all this, I knew, I was in fact withdrawing. And I was quite happy to do so. As much as I had once found it all interesting and even stimulating, by that time I’d really had quite enough of it.
So, it was clear that retirement meant putting the emphasis on my departing from something. It did not, however, say anything about my stepping into anything new. But in fact that was exactly what I was looking forward to. I felt much more as though I were entering into a new phase of life, rather than merely ending an old one. I certainly did not feel as though I was withdrawing from the world, or retreating into a place of safety and, except for the usual hours of slumber, I definitely didn’t feel like I was stumbling off to bed. In fact, I still often get up before 6:00 a.m., perform my daily meditation, eat breakfast, and then go to work on some project or other.
Before discussing what I do, I want to make sure not to be misunderstood. I’m not one of those people who believes that they are wasting their life if they’re not constantly “busy.” Busyness, in and of itself, has never been a goal of mine. I’m not sure what that even exactly means, but I am often quite content just to sit and read a book, or occasionally go out into the backyard and look at the beautiful flowers that my partner and I are growing there: lilies of several different varieties, orchids, snapdragons, pansies, petunias, freesias (depending on the season, of course), as well as irises, roses, and so on.
Even so, I still have things that I want to do, tasks I’d like to accomplish. I suppose I could say one of them was thinking about what this notion of retirement means. It may seem odd that thinking about what you’re going to do could be considered in someway akin to the actual doing of it. But let’s remember that most actions have their genesis in thought, and without prior contemplation and reflection we risk those actions coming off as half-baked and ill-conceived.
Which brings me back to the notion of life-after-retirement. Rethinking, reinventing, renewing, these are, or ought to be, the first occupations a post-retired man or woman ought to spend time considering. I’ve already spoken about the rethinking part, but it is the essential starting point. Or not. Maybe you don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking. Maybe your interests are already perfectly clear. I know they were for me. Long before I retired, I knew that I wanted to spend a lot of time writing. And I have done that. I never promised myself that I had to be “successful” at it, that I had to find a publisher and get it out there in book form. Of course, it would still be nice, but I always felt the most important thing was to continue writing. In fact, so far I’ve written dozens of short stories, some poetry, a novella, a post apocalyptic novel and, of course, more or less weekly essays on our blog. Between my blog partner, Kevin, and myself, we now have 147 essays posted on this site.
That, I suppose, was in essence the rethinking part of it, followed by action, by getting into a rhythm, a kind of regime, sitting down each day and writing. You do it, even if you don’t always feel like it, or feel inspired, or if you’d really rather take a nap. All writers, whether they are successful at it or not (that is, whether they’re published or not), know that writing is a discipline. Of course, not every reinventing of oneself in retirement necessarily demands such a marked degree of self-regulation. As I’ve already mentioned, self-discipline itself also needs to leave room for just sitting back and musing, and on sometimes doing nothing at all.
In some ultimate way, retirement also gives us the opportunity to both renew and to reinvent ourselves. Those who are successful at it do so in ways that deepen, enrich, and reinvigorate their bodies and their psyches. Although not the only approach, one way to do this is to take on something completely different from what you had done at work in the past. If you were an engineer, for example, begin a process of learning about poetry or film or painting; if you were in business all of your life, spend time with little children or teaching reading to adults who have never learned how to do so; if you spent your life with the principal aim of making money, spend your retirement helping the poor; if you managed an office or taught literature, become impassioned and learn all you can about theoretical physics and the great mysteries of the cosmos. There is a great deal to be said for this kind of renewal and reinvention of the self in different and potentially fascinating arenas of life that played no role in your earlier professional world. I’m not saying that this is right for everyone, but consider the benefits in terms of the expansion of one’s horizons and of the sheer joy and reinvigorating energy of learning and doing something entirely new.
And let us not forget our bodies. Human beings are not just minds, or psyches, or emotional or even spiritual beings. We are also corporeal ones. We have bodies and we owe it to these bodies to take care of their needs. Get out there and exercise! If you’ve never exercised before, of course, don’t go crazy. Be smart about it and begin reasonably. Start with a short walk every day. Fifteen or twenty minutes are enough, but keep at it. The key to exercise at any age, but especially when one is older, is to do it regularly. And gradually build up so that, after a while, you are walking half an hour each day, and eventually forty or forty-five minutes. Add other calisthenics, as well, a few easy sit-ups, some jumping-jacks, and as you get more and more fit, you can even add push-ups. If you have never exercised on any kind of a regular basis before, this too is part of renewal in retirement.
And I have nothing against television, but keep watching it to a minimum. If contemplation is best (and again here I include both reading and the appreciation of nature), constructive and energizing action is second best. Leave TV watching to a distant third. People sometimes get stuck in retirement because no one is there to organize and construct their day, the way the demands of work once did. So, be that organizing person for yourself. Make a schedule, stick to it, vary from it when it seems right, and do nothing when that’s best.
One way or another, don’t just retire from something. Consider it an opportunity to rethink, reinvent, and renew your life. In so doing, you will greatly benefit, and play a role, however large or small, in making the world a better place – surely for yourself – and perhaps for everyone around you, as well.