Last week we said that leaving work makes us temporarily smaller. Even if it is welcome and voluntary, leaving work involves loss. Retirees will serve themselves well if they think through the loss and review some foundations of life, thereby preparing for new ventures.
Loss is not new to most people in later life. Who lives 55 years or more without experiencing it? Still, many people never consider a process by which they might work through it and thereby experience the loss constructively. Here are five ideas that may help:
- Review your career. Look back through your career and remember the high and low points, thinking of things you did well and things you could have done better. Write these out if you believe that will help. Evaluate major incidents or trends and put them together into a mosaic that gives an honest and complete picture of your working life. You must embrace the full picture including the blemishes and embarrassments—they are part of you. Keep that mosaic in memory—it is your formal assessment of work and will become part of your ongoing identity. It will help if you can discuss your review with a spouse, relative, or friend, perhaps in parts, at odd intervals. Take it slow. Sometimes the truth can be swallowed only in small doses.
- Review your childhood. Think of family, friends, and schoolmates. If you can, travel to visit family members and old friends you may not have seen in years. Remember stories of family life, and review youthful adventures at school. If possible, attend a reunion. People from your early life have a special quality because they know you independently of your career.
- Repair damage to past relationships. In the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program, steps eight and nine involve identifying injuries you caused and making amends. Repairing relationships is good for everyone, and you might begin with a card wishing a person well and suggesting further contact. For family members, it may be wise to send cards repeatedly on special days until the ice is cracked. Family relationships are among the core elements of our identities, and we should keep them intact.
- Intensify your hobbies and interests. Reading, visiting museums, gardening, painting, making photographs, and so on, are all appropriate ways to take up the time formerly devoted to work. Hobbies often cleanse the mind, giving it a single focus for an extended time. Make exercise a regular activity. If you don’t already have an exercise routine, begin looking into what exercises may be best suited to you. The evidence is clear— exercise promotes health.
- Attend to life’s mysteries. Religion or spiritual practices help people orient toward life’s eternal rhythms. If religion doesn’t fit, try practices like meditation or yoga. Literature, music, art, as well as institutes, centers, monasteries, among other resources provide wonderful opportunities for renewing and extending a retiree’s spiritual life.
The five items above helped me through the first hundred days of my retirement. During the last few years of my career, I had taken a new job, then found conflicts with my new boss. They were visible, one was public, and I grew alienated. After the last of five conflicts in three years, I began considering retirement. Two years later I left. There were other factors, too. I grew less interested in students and more tired of teaching. I figured we had enough money. And I wanted to leave while I still had energy for new ventures.
Retirement was at first euphoric, but soon it took on aspects of loss. It was then, maybe three or four weeks into it, that I made a real effort to let work go. I worked through the above items in about the order listed, though there was overlap. One seemed to evolve into another, and I never really had a working list until sitting down to write this post. Some, like renewing relationships, pursuing hobbies, and searching for spiritual growth have become ongoing parts of life.
In talking with other men and women, I have come to realize that many have incorporated some of the above elements into their retirements. I see men at Bible Study working to reach a deeper sense of their personal mysteries. I see women dive headlong into new projects having roots in hobbies from early or middle life. And I have seen people celebrate reconciliations with lost friends and family members.
A recent news report tells of a new book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, in which Bronnie Ware, a nurse, reports on the most common regrets expressed by people nearing death. The top two are (1) not being true to yourself and your dreams, and (2) working too hard. The five steps advocated here will help retirees master the loss of work and transition into retirement. You cannot go back and change how hard you worked, but you can create peace with the work decisions you made and move forward without regret. In the process, you will learn more about yourself and build some new dreams to which you might still be true.