I’ve never been a person who learns the lesson on the first try. Whether it was serving a tennis ball or mastering French, I have to go at it many times from a variety of angles before it really sinks in. I'm thinking about this now because I am, once again, fully retired, and I am experiencing the same issues I did when I officially stopped working in June, 2014. Since that day when I packed a small cardboard box with my pen holder, Happy Retirement cards, the remainder of the 2014 calendar, and all of the other tchotchkes adorning my desk, I have been alternately working and not working. And so, as the new year begins and I am again making my own schedule and filling my own time, I’m a little bit at odds, but not nearly as much as I was when I first started this two and a half years ago.
It occurred to me a couple of months ago, when I knew that this was coming again, that the discomfort I feel is not really about retirement, but about all of the things we use in our lives to keep us from just having to be who we are and feeling what we feel. It’s like the difference between looking at yourself in the mirror in that great new outfit you bought for that party and then again when you’re in your birthday suit. Because we have each spent so little time with ourselves unadorned by the life, expectations, and structure of work, when we are at this end, with all of that gone, it’s like getting to know your true self for the first time.
This has to be the secret joy of this end of life; that we can finally look at ourselves in the mirror—clothed or not—and just be content with who we are.
Work is one of the many tools we have at our disposal that keep us from having to just sit with ourselves and be who we are, without a title, an office, other people, or a mood-enhancer to soften the blow. Not that it’s all that hard to be ourselves; it’s just that we have very little experience doing it, so it seems tougher than it probably really is. We’re just not sure if we want to hear that voice in our heads that tells us to take up tap dancing, or the one that’s scared to go out in the world and try new things or that nagging watcher at the gates that urges us to do more. We’re not sure if we’ll be lonely without work to fall back on or if our anxieties will take over completely. Because I’ve gone back and forth to work several times in the last couple of years, I’ve gotten to see myself in action in relation to these ideas.
I did a project in the fall semester that coincided with a period of time in which I was worrying about a couple of things in my personal life. I would go to sleep at night mulling and tormenting over what might happen and who said what, and then, by the time I was at the college working, it had left my brain completely. It wouldn’t be until I was driving home in the afternoon that I’d remember the situation again and the worry would start anew. I suppose many of us would do just about anything to stop the chatter in our heads, the perseverating about teenagers or taxes or car repairs or relationships. It just so happens that work—or television, or sports, or a couple of beers—is consuming enough that it just gives us a break from having to experience what it feels like to be us.
But I also think that there has to come a time when we do it—when we sit with ourselves without the shield of work or some other machination—when we let the discomfort come and go and drive us crazy and eventually it settles down. This has to be the secret joy of this end of life; that we can finally look at ourselves in the mirror—clothed or not—and just be content with who we are. I know it’s not easy, and I know I’ll be tempted to soften it all in a few months and go back to work just to get a break from myself, but on a huge level, I hope not.