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Back to Basics


We humans are primitive. And though I've known this for a long time, after spending years getting into a 4-cylinder, 120-horsepower steel machine and navigating it across technically engineered concrete freeways to a job where I analyzed data in complex spreadsheets and facilitated conversations about the psychological needs of students and the political ramifications of public education, I had to regularly remind myself that our actions and reactions are much more basic than all of that. When someone was angry because I had to cancel his low-enrolled class, I needed to recall that at the core of things, he felt scared that he wasn’t going to have enough money. And when I made a mistake in one of those high-level calculations, instead of feeling like I was a total failure, it was important to remind myself that I probably wasn't the only person to ever screw up something like this.

As complex as the worlds we have created appear to be, mostly we want to be safe and loved and comforted and remembered and heard and fed and appreciated. And even when people annoy us and talk to us too much and bug us about things they wish we would take care of, we don’t really want to be alone too much of the time.

But here’s a funny thing. Now that my life is infinitely simpler, with an open schedule and a daily agenda that more closely resembles a wish list, it was only recently that I recalled again how basic my reaction to most things really is. When I first retired, I felt as if I had thousands of hours ahead of me to do anything I wanted to do and thousands of things I wanted to accomplish. I was thrilled to stop working and ready to have fun and learn new things and try my hand at tasks I’d either long ago set aside or never even attempted. Now, even re-reading that sentence gives me anxiety. What I didn’t consider is that, given my fundamentally simple approach to life, this was overwhelming. No wonder I felt nervous and pressured and like I was supposed to be doing something super-human.

We want to be safe and loved and comforted and remembered and heard and fed and appreciated.

I am reminding myself now that taking my time to read the newspaper, not finishing a project I was positive I could complete in one day, and giving myself a minute to get ready to make a hard phone call are all fine. Still, part of me feels that, since I’m so lucky to get to be living this big, open life, I ought to be tough on myself and figure out exactly what I’m going to do and when it’s going to get done. “You’re just being soft on yourself because you’re getting old,” I ruminate as I push myself to run five miles instead of four. Being gentle on myself and reasonable about how I structure my time--while still setting a few goals and trying new things--is a daily dance that requires authentic reflection.

I think more than anything, it has taken being out of the complexity of the working life for a few months to realize that not everything has to be that hard. The intense spirit of so much of the world of work trained me to assess my retirement days with the same rigor, measured outcomes, strict deadlines and high expectations. Now, simply because so much of that is absent from my new world, I am having to re-learn some rudimentary concepts: things take time; learning new skills and approaches, including habits, is not easy; I’m not always going to get everything right; just because I'm good at something doesn't mean I'm going to like it; and, it's okay to try something and decide it's not for me. So I’m not only discovering this new world for the first time, but in many ways am meeting myself without the armor and machinations required in the world I was part of for 35 years.

I feel like I’m finally peeling off a few of the degrees of difficulty now and letting myself enjoy the basic feelings I actually have. And I’m only spending a few minutes each day wishing I’d been able to do this much, much sooner.