I continue to watch as my friends and colleagues go through the agony of deciding about when and how to retire. For me, it’s been almost nine years.
And what about the minority of Americans who have prepared adequately for retirement? YOU would think it would be a simple decision to retire or to significantly cut back on work time after a certain age, at a point in time when finances have been secured and available. These are the smart ones, the lucky ones, and the fortunate ones who have been at the right place at the right time, careful with their dollars, investing wisely, saving what they could. Retirement decisions should be a slam-dunk! But nothing is further from the truth. Retirement is not a slam-dunk even for these individuals. Why so?
Many people are afraid to retire because they are afraid to lose their perceived status and respect gained in their successful and valued careers. Many people fear a life without work and the enormous dump of free time that will need filling with something new. Many people feel wedded and contented with the routine that they are addicted to and fear disrupting and/or disturbing its comfortable configuration. Many are afraid to venture out to seek new adventures for fear of failure. Many people do not have creative goals in later life other than to relish the status quo. Many people are so used to making money: they shun the temptation to spend any of it. And some people fear getting lazy, slowing down, getting sick and dying, or turning into a motionless mass of mindless mush.
A number of years before I retired from my position on the full-time University of Hawaii faculty, I was told by a respected friend that you need to have a well thought out plan before you retire. She was in her 50’s, had a husband and family and retired after leading a major hospital as its CEO. She had the vision and the means to carry out her retirement plan. She treated retirement as a discrete intellectual challenge using the same processes that she used as CEO to manage a large hospital complex. In the end, she was successful in her retirement, as she was as CEO. My situation is different than hers.
I have been semi retired for almost nine years. My wife died over twenty years ago. I have remained in the work force at about a 50% effort at the University of Hawaii under a totally different system of employment and benefits.
My advice: IF you want to retire, retire sooner than later while you have most or all of your faculties. NOT retiring should not be taken as a failure but as a personal choice. But if you choose to retire, you will find that there are more things to do than you would think possible. Free time enhances your quality of life and gives you control of your day and surrounding environment. Maintain enough free time to force you to confront yourself often to make active decisions in shaping the next chapters of your life. Percipient self-awareness is key!
“If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.”
― Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales
There are several retirement scenarios that I have observed over the past twenty years. I will present two, and try hard to avoid my strong biases to shoot out in these descriptions.
Scenario No 1: Classical Retirement: To a life of relaxation and the slippery slope of leading to piggishness. Just relax, lower your guard, and enjoy not having any pressing duties to attend to. Taken to the extreme, this can backfire badly on you. To be sure, I have marveled at the number of friends and acquaintances who, from the moment they retire, began to gain considerable weight while simultaneously reducing physical activity to a near standstill. These are the folks who are frantic without a remote control, who take every opportunity to sit rather than stand, who watch TV shows and sports and Netflix in gross excess, who consume increasingly dense caloric meals and snack relentlessly, and whose alcohol consumption increases unconsciously over time. They are the bulk of the folks that I notice every time I step foot on a cruise ship. It’s as if they have released themselves of any self-control lured by the immediacy of hedonistic, reckless self-indulgence. But not all are moronic automatons glaring nonstop at some flickering screen; some spend their couch potato hours reading books – all kind of books, some good, and some better. Some even enjoy gardening and other outdoor activity.
The hedonistic identity is to not deny you the pleasures of life that you have heretofore abstained from but increasingly yearned for. Pleasures that you have worked hard for can now be enjoyed, accepting the notion that life is short and you must live it to the fullest. You should not deny yourself anything that will bring pleasure. I don’t think you will take pride in your diligence in abstaining from eating mouthwatering cheeseburgers while sinking into oblivion on your deathbed.
The problem of course is that your life is invariably made shorter by following a path of profligacy, and also less enjoyable as lifestyle abuses mount up over time to exact their toll on the human body. Chronic diseases are debilitating and draining which may be worse than a death sentence itself. Despite these cautions, this life style choice is attractive to the masses and even to a self-proclaimed, self-righteous health charlatan like myself who is intermittently tempted with deliverance from my self-imposed dietary manias. Alas it would be pure bliss to not feel the mounting crescendo of remorse that invariably sets in like a shroud every time something calorically yummy travels down my alimentary tract.
Scenario No 1 includes a healthier variation that calls for a more active life style. I believed that once I retired, I would play tennis 4-5 times a week instead of sparsely as time would permit, encroaching on a busy doctor’s work schedule. (The problem is I quit tennis 10 years ago.) Golfers would identify with this mentality. Of course any recurrent physical activity pursuit is to be encouraged although excesses can be damaging and lead to exposure (sun and skin don’t mix well if you nest under the hot sun), injury (years of flailing on the tennis court has overworked my knee joints with my tendons ready to pop), and an enormous investment of time spend during selfish pursuits (a good or bad thing depending upon who you are doing what with and where your family fits into this overly consuming activity).
Scenario No 2: Venture into the wilderness of the unknown: Put another way, do something in your retirement that is completely new. Something that requires skills that are different than those you have already acquired and are known for. Put yourself at risk for the unknown, in a place where you might fail or remain mediocre, or even excel if you are lucky and dedicated. Finding the right match might be tricky but a little common sense and dedication to self-preservation will keep you safe to choose wisely. For example, taking up skydiving may pose an unnecessarily high risk of injury or death, while taking up race walking may have the same effect with infinitely less risk.
My situation can serve as an example to consider. Not that I have any special talents in delving into the unknown. But rather to display what contemplation processes took place in deciding on my first area of focus after retirement.
I chose ballroom dancing as one “serious” area of retirement enterprise in stark contrast to my previous professional life. Being an intensive care doctor was a serious and sober travail. There was little time for levity except to flirt with an occasional nurse who was willing to play along. Life and death and disability were on the menu on a daily basis, 24/7. I put a 100% effort into my profession. Even when I was off duty, I felt guilty when I was reading anything other than medical journals and texts. Family activities filled the remnants of every day, which was nevertheless rewarding and fulfilling. My wife was a wonderful and understanding partner (for the most part), and my children were well cared for. But, thirty years of caring for high-risk newborn infants at all hours of the day and night took its toll on me, my sleep habits, my personality, my sense of humor, my family, and my life in general. Taken together, life felt like an incessant series of unhinged staccato lunges, everything was an emergency, and little was fluid or sanguine.
Moreover, the fracture and cacophony of my former life was embodied in living the harsh sounds of my daily routine, dodging bustling traffic rushing to meetings with screechy chairs imprisoned by an endless stream of raucous pontifications. In the neonatal intensive care unit, it was the constant chaos of the staff frantically doing their jobs, providing care to vulnerable, helplessly sick infants, talking to families, and responding to the relentless shower of monitor alarms sounding off so frequently they produced a recognizable “music” all their own.
Why ballroom dancing? For one thing, it was was the direct antithesis of my former life in almost every way. Indeed, new unused areas of my cerebral cortex would be called upon to awaken. However, it was mostly from my growing love of music. Having lost my wife to cancer more than 20 years ago, I have since been alone in the world for extended periods. But I never feel alone when I’m listening to music, and more importantly, I am never lonely. It isn’t just one type of music, indeed, I am fickle and drift from one type to the next…..Classical, Hawaiian, Latin, jazz, slow ballroom (waltz, foxtrot), and even tango which I truly suck at dancing.
“Music is part of being human.”
“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain....”
― Oliver Sacks
“The only escape from the miseries of life are music and cats...”
― Albert Schweitzer
And after struggling for years to translate the basic mechanics of the various dance forms into some muddled form of muscle memory, at special unexpected times, I feel I am truly dancing. I am no longer conscious of my posture and technique or thinking what’s next; my movements are ordered by the music itself. A truly wonderful feeling that is impossible to fully describe – other than to others who have experienced this thrill.
When I am dancing, I feel I could dance forever if it weren’t for my hurting, tender feet, my starched left Achilles that resists stretch, and the limitations of my aging body parts and joints. Even the grumpy philosopher Nietzsche loved music and dance.
“To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
This was the perfect egress from my former life calling for a totally different skill set that I had heretofore ever experienced. And risky too…..no one wants to fail…..I was a good doctor…..to then be a shit ballroom dancer would be a hard pill to swallow. But without risk there is no sense of adventure or excitement, no self-awareness, no immediacy. Indeed, I could continue to live my former life trudging on day after day as mindless as the Myth of Sisyphus. It was the routine I had become accustomed to; it was the routine I felt safe with. But at some point in my life, I realized I was slowly dying inside, and at unexpected times, I felt I was nowhere to be found. Something else was occupying me. It was indeed time for something new. It didn’t matter that on the surface, everything seemed normal. I was important and prosperous and respected and responsible for the many human lives around me. It took an act of faith to give this all up.
But this is the departure that I feel represents the critical moment of truth. Not everyone is willing to abandon the safety of his or her routine. Not everyone is able to acknowledge or even understand or admit his or her self-imposed captivity. And not everyone is willing to risk losing what is known for the unknown. Ergo, not everyone should venture into the wilderness for something new. To decide to continue the course is not a failure or weakness or cowardly response, it is an acknowledgment and recognition that for that individual, doing what they did yesterday and today is what truly makes them happy. But at the very least, everyone should consider all of the variables in choosing what direction to take in order to avoid that moment of truth, when you realize the immutable certainty that its too late to venture into the wilderness of the unknown.
I live life in chapters. After nine years of semi retirement, and seven years of ballroom dance competitions, I am looking forward to Chapter 6 in my life. And I am just as anxious now as I was nine years ago in deciding how Chapter 1-5 will shape Chapter 6. But alas, this writing has already contributed a smidgeon to the process…………………