What's Tony Thinking

Why Retirement Can Be Difficult


I suppose we’ve all been to retirement parties where the mood is jubilant. Retirement is spoken of as some sort of promised land or “the golden years.”

Retirement can be that and even is that for some. But not for all. Retirement can also be, and for many people is, challenging.

By the way, I have my own definition of “retirement.” It is when someone sends you money for not showing up. Also known as a pension, annuity, or Social Security.

That can be quite nice, but retirement still can also be challenging. Why?

My answer starts with what I have come to call the “three R’s.” There are losses entailed in leaving the world of work, in leaving behind a job or a profession that you have, at least to some extent, mastered. One way to name those losses is with the “three R’s,” role, relationships and routine.

Taking them in reverse order. A job establishes a routine, a pattern, to our days and weeks. It may, at times, feel more like a rut than a routine. But routine is another word for order. Most of us need order, patterns to our days. At its best our days are full and even productive.

With retirement, that routine goes away. Which leaves a person at loose ends. Where you have for a long time lived with “never enough time,” you may find yourself in a strange new place, seemingly, “too much time” or as the expression goes “time on your hands.”

So part of retirement is establishing some new routine(s). And once established, they will change. Pattern and routine are moving targets in this phase of life. That’s okay. But cut yourself some slack as you work out the new pattern of your days and life.

And another “R,” relationships. For many of us most of the relationships we have, outside the family, come with our work. In work like mine, pastoral ministry, you not only have relationships, you have a whole community . . . that goes away.

In retirement, I find I have to be more intentional about relationships. We have several groups of friends, now, that meet periodically for dinner parties. I started a book group that I really enjoy. With other friends, I call up to invite someone for a walk, a coffee or a beer. And other relationships arrive new — gifts — like our six grandchildren, all in Seattle. Not everyone is nearly so fortunate on that score. We count our blessings.

The third “R” is role. Who am I? For a long time, forty years, the answer was “a minister,” “a pastor.” That was never all that I was, but it was a vocation that was by and large good, even very good. It anchored me, in the positive and negative senses of that word. It kept me from drifting away on the currents, but also held me in place and in an emotional system that could, at times, be intense even overwhelming.

At any rate, I had a role. These days “former minister” is a part of who I am, but not my main thing, nor should it be. “Former” is “past.” We live in the present. I would say that giving up the role, brings questions, like the aforementioned, “who am I?” Also, “What’s my purpose?” “What am I doing with my one life?” But it also brings freedom to let parts of yourself emerge that your role may have suppressed.

During my forty years as a minister I was never much of a hobby person. I find the word annoying. But now I have two passions that I guess would be called “hobbies.” They are skiing and painting. I took up both fairly recently.

Someone I read on aging said that the thing you need to do when you’re older is take up something you’ll never be an expert, or a star, at, but which you can work on and improve. For me skiing and painting are that. I work at both. I’ll never do the double black diamonds or support myself by selling art, but I  work at. I learn. I get a little better. It’s satisfying.

But the larger point is that the loss of role, relationships and routine that often go with a job or profession are real and challenging losses. They need to be acknowledged. Real work needs to be done to transition well.

There are some other things one might add to the loss column. Both retirement and aging entail a loss of power. This too can be difficult to let go, even if we must. But there’s something unattractive about people (usually but not always men) who try too hard to hang onto power.

As with many things in life, a sense of humor is a necessity for this time of life, with its changes, losses and gains. A sense of humor, acceptance and gratitude.

But if you’re finding or have found retirement a difficult adjustment, there are reasons for that. As I say, cut yourself some slack. The adjustments don’t happen overnight, but they do happen.

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