On Retirement

Retirement.  Hmmm…now there’s a word! I have to say that from the outset of my ‘retirement’ I have never been comfortable with this label, and am less so now.

The fact is, ‘retired’ is a category that obscures much more than it reveals.  This is true of most categories, of course, but from my perspective, this demographic—the retired—is perhaps the least homogenous of any of the demographic and ‘generational’ categories that sociology, and society-at-large, impose, and whose mantle older people often take on without question.

From where I stand and observe, there is very little that people-of-a-certain-age who have moved beyond employment have in common. Indeed, if anything at all distinguishes this ‘age’, it is that for the first time in our lives we become, for at least a short while—and for many of us, for a long while—really apart from the herd.

Each of us walks, tentatively, our own road, and seeks meaning in our own way. The diversity is quite astounding. I don’t see two elders who look the same, do the same, manage the same, think the same, dream the same, are made joyful—or discouraged—by the same stimulus or events. Creativity abounds. Interior life is a kaleidoscope.

I feel that those of us who are older—we who have pulled back (which is what ‘retired’ literally means) for a longer gaze, and the shorter run—have in some ways entered the prime of life. Even if it lasts only one … more … minute.

And that, inevitably, is the one common element of our generational cohort, us ‘retired’ folks. We do share ‘intimations of mortality.’ We know that we are living towards extinction, will soon be gone. And in each our own way, we savour this, we contemplate, we explore, we plan, we scheme. And we accompany friends and family in life, illness and death.

But mostly, we let this awareness of mortality heighten the experience of each day; we let it temper our anger and our joy; we let it smooth the edges of our each long-held and sharpened truth; we let the glimpse of death ease the load of life. And rather than darkening the path, it lights it, opens it, to wonder, and if we are lucky, to childish pleasure once more.

As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “The path of return, continues the journey.”

The pulling back is also a pulling towards, an embrace of life’s embrace, even as we contemplate and anticipate its final letting go.

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