A friend, a physiatrist at a Veterans Administration hospital in New England, wrote me how she was reluctantly but ineluctably moving towards retirement. She didn’t know what she would do. She knew other friends who had retired and they seemed to have time on their hands. To my friend, having time on her hands was scary!
Retirement is not for the weak of heart. I can say that now after having gone through the process that I thought would be a cinch. After all I had not worked more than three days a week since 1986. That was a decision I made deliberately and fortune smiled and went along with me.
I made the decision after getting burnt out working over 60 hours a week for seven years. I was lucky. Most people don’t get a chance to get on top of their careers. An Episcopal priest friend had recommended a workshop on career management developed by a former Roman Catholic priest. Martin (that’s not his real name) guaranteed that anyone who took his workshop found the job he wanted within a year. Most did it within nine months.
I took the week-long seminar. It taught me new skills. One of the most valuable was a system for reaching out to strangers, ask them questions, and from these meetings get outside my entrenched world view from the chair I occupied doing my one job. I got to meet people in all walks of life and 98% were only too happy to meet with me. They loved talking about themselves, the work they did and the life they lived. It was eye- and life-opening.
Learning the skill of reaching out to strangers became a lifelong tool. Whenever I needed to know something I simply recreated the system and found answers to questions I didn’t even know were the questions I really needed to ask.
Doing the system that first time I found a position in six months. It was for one a day a week but it was something I never even thought was available. It paid more money than I ever earned before, I had control of the quality of my work, and I worked with people who shared my values. Working one day a week didn’t bring in much money initially but that worked just fine. I was doing other real-life researches and I had time to go on with those. And I learned something else. I learned how to simplify my life. I learned not so much doing without as doing nothing!
I could have earned gobs more money going the conventional route but 1986 became the template for the rest of my working life, that first phase of working. I earned enough to live comfortably and earned enough to save, too, for when I decided even that much time working that first career was too much.
So I told the people at work I was going on a sabbatical. I didn’t know when I would be back. Everyone was supportive although they thought I was insane. The boss said I could go back anytime I wanted (similar values, remember?). That was six years ago. The sabbatical became permanent. I was retired.
It was difficult, more difficult than a nightmare. When I realized I couldn’t go back to my former life, the force of that realization seemed crushing. This was something new! I had never done this before. Even the tool that had served me so well while active in the normal work life was of no use this time. It was time for a new tool and for that I had to go inside.
A friend came over for dinner tonight. He too had been in difficult transitions. He came to the U.S. from Mexico twelve years ago. He was going to be a sculptor. He managed. He got married, got divorced, started his own studio, got married again. Now he thinks he knows what he wants to do. Paco told me that the times when he felt really depressed, in despair and completely underfoot by circumstance, those are times that on retrospect came before something better came.
Maybe suffering forces us back to the rock wall and when we can’t step back any farther is when we confront the problem head on. What else could we do? We hold our ground and slowly, imperceptibly, the rock behind us melts and the threatening monster, too. The monster morphs into the fulfillment of desire we didn’t know we had.
I told Francisco that I felt I had not lived until now. My old profession was the best I could do given what I had to deal with then. I paid my dues. Now I can follow my passion and passion has come back after I’d put it down all these years.
Retirement is the wrong word. It is the age of maturity, of some wisdom but regnant wisdom when we can luxuriate in the many gentle, incredible delights of being human, of being alive! Time on my hands? Time in my hands.