The day when I retired and gave back my office keys, downloaded all my course documents, and met with Human Resources had me questioning my decision.
My last week of teaching in college was a roller coaster of emotions. It was filled with lots of well-wishers, lovely gifts, sweet cards, get-togethers, balloons and a few tears.
I clearly remember a young professor giving me a big hug. “Karen,” she smiled, “I’m so happy for you. You have done such great things for this college, and you worked so hard all these years. Now you deserve to just make time for yourself; take a break, rest, relax and enjoy.”
Did that young woman mean take a break, as in rest on the bench for a bit, or did she mean take a break, as in head to the locker room and turn in my uniform?
So… Was I done? Did my retirement signify I had reached my full potential and was now headed for the downhill slope? What a sobering thought, and quite frankly, a depressing one.
It seemed that with each conversation I had regarding my retirement I was asked the same question.
My response was pretty much the same. “My plan is to spend more time with my children and grand babies, write, take walks… and my husband thinks I need to raise chickens.”
I vividly remember setting in my hard metal folding chair out on the football field on my final attendance for graduation night. I thought about my students taking their next step toward an exciting career and gaining a new identity. Here I was retiring, and I felt like I was losing mine.
So, is this as good as it gets, I wondered. Is my life as fulfilling as it’s going to be? Should I just appreciate that it had been a good ride, and be grateful and satisfied for my experience in a career I loved? Why was I even thinking about this now? I had retired.
I don’t know about you, but I hate the word ‘retired’. It sounds so old… and tired. Not only tired… but re-tired. And, depending on your accent, it can sound like you’re saying ‘retard’ or ‘retreat’.
Let me ask you: do these synonyms for the word ‘retirement’ sound like something that helps us embrace this transition? ‘Withdrawal, retreat, surrender, pullout, disengagement, recoil, shrinking, disentanglement…?’
Seriously, who wants that? It sounds like we are abandoning the ship!
I think my husband saw the signs of my tsunami coming, so he bought me a book to try and stem the tide, How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free by Ernie Zelenski. In the first chapter, there is a little cartoon character lounging in his rocking chair, reading a book about retirement, and the caption says, “The only major problem with retirement is that it gives you more time to read about the problem of retirement. If you can avoid this trap, you have it made.”
I did not feel I had it made! And I soon learned I was not alone. I found there were others experiencing some negativity with this ‘retirement’ business.
And Rama. Sami Natarajan, an essayist, described the day he announced his retirement, “All my ‘strengths’ were stripped off me by some unknown force. I became a wimp in the eyes of the world.”
Spanish cellist Pablo Casals was quite clear on his disdain for the term as well, “To retire is the beginning of death.”
And although I admit Casals sounds a bit overly dramatic, there is actually some research that backs up his statement. Yep… you are more likely to die when you retire. I know… that’s scary!
I began searching for someone who might offer some sage advice on this new seismic shift in my life. I asked my newly retired cousin about his thoughts on retirement. He said, “I don’t tell anyone I am retired.”
“Really,” I responded. “Why don’t you tell people?”
“Because,” he said, “I found out pretty quickly that when I mention I am retired, it is like I become invisible… I just don’t get the same respect I once did.”
Holy cow! Is that true?
A good friend of mine suggested I read a book by Jane Pauley, Your Life Calling; Reimagining the Rest of Your Life. Pauley shares how she spent the first year of retirement lying on her couch. She filled her days by making up a list of all the things she could do now that she was retired. As the lonely days slowly and painfully passed, she recalled, her list of possibilities grew.
Then one day her son called her up and told her, “Mom, you know that list of ideas you keep working on? Well, I think you have collected enough good ideas. Now it’s time for you to pick one and do something with it!”
I could so relate to Pauley’s experience. I too was spending way too much time lying on the couch, reading about retirement and jotting down ideas. I recalled the professor’s encouragement for me to just rest.
Then one day, while mindlessly perusing the internet, this headline piqued my interest:
Did you know the Japanese culture doesn’t even have a word for retirement? I loved hearing about that. Instead, they have a term called ikigai. Ikigai (ee-key-guy): iki, means “alive” or “life,” and gai, means “benefit” or “worth.”
When combined, it means “that which gives your life worth, meaning, or purpose…. why you get up in the morning.”
Other synonyms for this Japanese term are worthiness, fruitfulness, effectiveness. Now, that is quite a big difference from the West’s retirement synonym words: withdrawal, retreat, pull out, surrender.
I learned that, in regards to the kai portion of the term, it is important to note that there is a strong connotation with “challenge.” Therefore, if one is seeking their ikigai, it requires a certain amount of effort.
Oh… so no more lounging? No more just resting and relaxing? It was necessary to put effort into finding my next path?
Rather than focusing on my fear of losing my identity, I would instead need to put my energy into expanding it.
Are you, or someone you know, struggling with retirement? It is not always an easy transition.
The following precepts and questions helped me to find my new path.
I am pleased to report that it wasn’t long before I found my next calling. And I hope to motivate others who feel they have lost their identity, or feel invisible, to step up and step out. You are never too old to make a difference. And who knows… as my granddaughter once reminded me… we might change the world.
Oh, and by the way… I still hate the word ‘retirement.”
What does retirement mean to you? How do you define it? What list of things have you created that have put meaning to your life after retirement?