The question I’m asked most often in happen-chance conversations since I retired is: “how do you occupy your time”? The short, but superficial, answer would be: “building a solar house, writing and speaking, volunteering in the community, gardening, etc.” But that’s not the important answer; I’m not even sure it’s the right question.
My days are “filled” differently since I’ve stopped reporting to work. I have more time to consider the nature of my own activity and the consequences of ecological-world trends. I have time to research and write this column. I still do lots of work; in fact since retiring I’ve done some of the most taxing work in my life. But my relationship to this has changed.
I know that for some retirement brings fears about being bored and socially isolated, especially if one’s main purpose and belonging comes from work. There’s increased physical and emotional vulnerability for sure. And fears about not having enough to do, or, perhaps more vital, not being able to do what is required for continued independence, exacerbate deeper worries about aging and dying. But these fears also stand in the way of us lightening up, lifting our burdens, becoming more easy-going and living our last years with greater serenity. And these fears interfere with our potential contributions to working for a more sustainable society.
If I honestly answered the question about how I occupy time I would probably say “attending to my spiritual learning” and “trying to contribute as best I can”. And “caring for my mum”, until 2006, when she died! These are all related for me. I’ve become more aware of how I experience my activities; my drive and strivings. I now ask: What‘s my emotional motive? Do I need to be busy, to fill the space of time? Am I setting goals to get something worthwhile done? Or am I keeping busy mostly to reward myself? Am I trapped in habits and needs that will contribute to “bringing me down?” Am I acting as worker and supervisor, father and son, all wrapped up in one? Or am I transcending these inner judgments? Am I learning to operate from a deeper place?
It’s an interesting journey. I’ve learned that over decades I’ve developed subtle ways, my own little rituals, to cope with the demands of work. I learned early on to break a big task down and reward myself for getting part of it done. I’ve tried to see things more as process than product; to have faith that with perseverance and co-operation a desired outcome will take shape. I’ve eased myself into tasks and then surrendered to them; sometimes “losing myself in the job”, which can be exhilarating and a bit risky. I’ve learned that resisting necessary work is not worthwhile. I’ve tried to redefine procrastination as a form of “foreplay”, as a necessary part of getting the activity going, which reduces worry and conserves energy for the actual task at hand. And now, in my retirement, I’m challenged to ease up on myself, let these deep patterns soften and perhaps even go!
Self-regulation is more satisfying than having to submit to the rigid timelines of others, as I had to when I worked in construction. But many jobs don’t allow such flexibility, which I had as an educator, so the “freedom to choose” that comes with retiring can be unsettling. Nevertheless, retirement provides everyone with opportunities for more personal and emotional learning. I don’t experience this as occupying time. I experience it more as moving through space than moving through time. For me, space continues to expand. Of course we all live within time, but this isn’t clock time. And even though my body ages with time, I feel ever-more connected to what might be called universal time, and the challenges that will shape our species’ future. And, like everyone, I have come to realize that I live in a very personally-framed time. Fully realizing that “my world” is not “the world” came as a bit of a shock.
This isn’t all about aging. Gaining such insights is harder because the relationship between means and ends is all mixed up in our fractious society. The one-sided focus on production and consumption leaves our humanity underdeveloped. Economic development should be a means to human development, but it gets treated as our unquestionable collective end. Humans are treated as the labour-force and consumer-force of economic-market growth. Equality, justice, compassion and spiritual deepening all go to the back-burner. The endless pursuit of gain steadily eats away at the ecological foundations of sustainability.
We can see this imbalance more clearly after retirement. With no institutional identity to defend we can become more open to who we are. We are freer to answer honestly when asked the ice-breaker, “what do you do for a living”, as we become more concerned with being than doing.
We pass through amazing stages in our life cycle. The growth and resilience of our body when we are young drives us forward. This physicality is reflected in high performance sports, which we continue to appreciate for the skill and endurance. But we all must face the challenges of the mind, and hopefully start learning from experience, taking more responsibility for our actions and nurturing foresight. Some of us find this harder than others. It’s easy for us to strongly identify with and grasp onto the human ventures that flourish at this stage of life. Inevitably, though, our bodies and then our minds start to wane, and we face spiritual challenges that we may have avoided for much of our life. Awareness of our intrinsic interconnectedness with all life and with the elements spawns a new form of consciousness and sometimes even wisdom. Getting to a more sustainable path will take a lot of wisdom.
CREATING OUR LEGACY
The shift from an external-institutional view of self to a more intrinsic one is a natural way to end our life cycle. Retiring enables us to enter the fullness of the present, and all that is happening in the here and now. This is unsettling only if one has come to believe that they are their job, or their belief system; that one has no value outside this constructed reality. With retirement we come to understand, more completely, that reality is much bigger and much more compelling than the impermanent socially-constructed world. This can be a form of liberation.
Small things, such as a cup of tea in the morning, take on surprising significance and joy. We learn to stop overriding our senses, perhaps noticing that our hips aren’t quite aligned and our body calls for some tender self-care. Thankfully we stop seeing our body as an instrument – something driven into us from childhood. We appreciate the changing quality of the light through the day! We become more in touch with the lived day, not as a day in the work week, but as it unfolds from daybreak to moonlight. We are more open to surprises, and don’t judge our day as a success or failure based on old scripts and unrealistic expectations. We are better able to be present to each other; to be grateful for being alive to experience the beauty of the people and places all around us!
Inner peace, acceptance of our diversity and that we are all mortal, and being more fully engaged, are fulfilling in their own terms. And if we became more collectively aware of our common ground-of-being perhaps we’ll start asking different questions about retirement. “How are you doing with shedding your work identity?” “Are you finding more contentment?” “What are you finding you really want to do?” “How do you want to be remembered?” If we open our heart to these questions, the vision and pathway of sustainability will continue to grow.