King David of the Old Testament peaked early. Read his story and you learn that his success as warrior and king was overshadowed by his failures as he grew older and, so-called, wiser. The great fallacy of aging is the idea that we learn from the life lessons of our youth and live out our mature years with sage wisdom and sound decisions. David was a great example of a man who struggled with aging and felt increasing remorse for his sins and failures (Psalms 51). His early successes did not build upon themselves into a great cathedral of strength. On the contrary, the aged David appears frail, afraid, weak and in despair and the psychology of self-actualization was never his to enjoy later in his life. It was through those haunting failures that David became the contrite psalmist desperate for God’s forgiveness and protection. I can relate to that David.
I have written nearly two hundred articles on this blog site that have pertained (mainly) to our travel experiences since I retired in 2012. Those articles are fun and easy to share. There have been some of a more serious nature – even heart wrenching in their honesty. I never wanted to hide from the truth in what I wrote and the more honest I have written – the more people seem to respond and indicate their own need for truth. People relate to honesty. For that I am very proud. But, it occurred to me that I have not written much about being retired and what the experience of growing older is really like. Knowing many of my friends are retired or nearing retirement, I decided to pull the curtain back and take a look at what growing old and being retired has looked like for me and how this stage of my life has been painful and joyful – despairing and exhilarating. Where to begin?
Just before I retired in July 2012, I was asked to speak at a memorial service as part of my high school’s thirty-fifth reunion celebration. The service was designed to honor and remember classmates who had passed away and I felt privileged to speak at that event. I shared with those in attendance that as the “baby boomer” generation, it seemed, we carried a sense of permanence in our lives. That is, we had the false belief that our life would go on forever and that things would really never change. The ‘Bee Gees’ sang, “Stayin Alive – Stayin Alive” and that is just what we believed would happen to all of us as we went our separate ways in 1977. The delusion of life’s permanence evaporated quickly as we stepped into the real world of work and family and children and illness and broken marriages and, sadly, in death. But the residual effects of that attitude has really stayed with me all these years later. Although I, like so many others my age, have experienced loss and sickness and failures – somewhere in my brain lived the little boy of twelve and thirteen years old who would never grow old, never get sick, never break down physically and, certainly, never die. Those concepts never really entered into my thinking about my own life – until I retired. Retirement changed how I saw myself and my world.
My retirement was a little different from most. Lisa and I hit the road for Hanover, Pennsylvania and her first travel job as a Echo-tech Sonographer before my actual retirement date had even arrived. Having a couple of weeks of vacation, my last official day at my job was in mid June and I really never had much time to think about not going to work again as our days were spent adjusting to this new place and new lifestyle. In many ways that made the transition easier for me. Having been so involved with the school system where I worked for twenty years – being twelve hours away helped put those past memories and the co-workers I missed out of sight and out of mind. I’m not sure how it would have impacted me had I been home the past three years. My hunch is – it would have been much more difficult. We traveled around central Pennsylvania and went to DC and other places and my mind was as far from work as it could possibly be that first year retired – for the most part. But, there were difficult moments and I remember one in particular.
One day after driving Lisa to her job in Hanover, I had returned to our camper in Gettysburg (thirty miles away) and was sitting in the shade of our camper awning. It was nearing fall then and the leaves were starting to turn colors. Suddenly and without any warning – I felt completely lost. For the first time since I had stepped away from employment, I had a sense of regret. What had I done? I should be at school working. This vacation should be over. It was a horrible feeling and so strong and so real that to look back on that moment rekindles the hurt I felt that day. Where that came from or, even more importantly, why that happened has been a mystery to me. I wonder if other people who retire have that strong sense of remorse on occasions or did they, like me, experience it in a bursting shock. Over time I have been able to accept that I am no longer the “working” man I had been for over thirty years and have allowed myself to just “be”. Our identities are so closely linked to our employment that retirement forces us to lose a sense of who we are and, hopefully, rediscover oneself. It is a journey I continue even today.
In many ways I find retirement much more difficult than working. That may be the last thing readers may want to hear who are contemplating retirement. Allow me to explain. When I was working my life and my schedule and my calendar and my days activities were all set for me. All I had to do was get up, get dressed and go do it. Retirement takes all that away. That seems like a really good thing and it is. I mean, everyone looks forward to the day when they do not have to answer to a clock or a schedule. But the reality is that it takes a greater effort for me today to stay busy, fill my days with activities and be engaged with others. I also discovered the change it had on my marriage. Where Lisa and I spent our first thirty years of marriage discussing our work with each other – our conversations have now changed. She tells me about saving an elderly person’s life by discovering a blood clot in her aorta while doing a test – I tell her it took almost four dollars to wash clothes and that I dropped a quarter under the washing machine and had to bend down and dig it out. You get the idea. Even my conversations with my kids are different. They talk about their jobs and things that happen at work. I listen and give advice when appropriate and think about what I can add to the conversation. Working gave me an automatic conversation starter. No wonder the elderly talk about their aches and pains in every conversation – there simply is nothing else to discuss. My poor kids have already had to endure my droning on about my arthritis or other mundane topics and I’m just fifty-five. If God allows me to hit eighty – they will be running for cover as soon as I roll into the room – assuming I probably won’t be walking by then. I suppose retirement impacts all in the family.
Somewhere, sometime long ago I came to believe that with age came less worrying about things, more laughter, more relaxing, better conversations and generally better quality of life. Commercials on television show white-haired couples laughing on the beach in flowing garments while sipping wine in their cabana. They look robust and at peace – their life’s work now over and now it is their time to enjoy living at its fullest. What a crock! Here I come down the beach. I am limping because my left knee is shot and needs to be replaced. The flowing white garment is flapping around my large belly and highlighting too many high calorie meals and canceled work-outs. My hair no longer flows since it fell out years ago and I would sip some high dollar wine with Lisa but it makes her sleepy and the cabana alone costs $75 a day to rent and my fixed income budget does not allow for such extravagance. It was also told to me that with age comes sage wisdom – the kind of wisdom that can see through daily problems with grace and understanding. Another crock! As I get older I find myself just as stressed about things as before – maybe more so. I worry about my kids back home, I worry about my home back home, I worry about worrying. Like the psalmist David, I seek God’s grace and forgiveness as much now as ever before and my thoughts are often on mistakes of my past that still haunt me. It is a fallacy to think that with age comes less worry and higher living.
But before anyone gets the idea that I am a complete mess as a member of AARP, I’m really not. Lisa and I have never enjoyed life more than we do now and though we miss our family and friends, cannot imagine our life outside this experience of traveling around the country. The friends we have made are an absolute treasure to our souls and as a couple we have never been closer. Perhaps my image of retirement has been the problem all along. It does not come worry or pain-free. Regrets will hit like slaps to the face, doubt and second guessing is inevitable.
But, in the words of an old gospel song, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”
Love, Steve and Lisa