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What To Do Next

As I write this, many of us are feeling mournful about losing Barack Obama and fearful about what might come next. Although I am certainly not the most political person in the world, I have worried many times in my life about where our government might be headed and how our country will fare. At other points, I have stood aghast as decisions have been made or blocked or ignored. The scope of political power mixed with the fragile state of critical thinking in our country often causes me to just want to ignore the whole thing. Sometimes I think that if I can squint enough, I could just disregard politics entirely and pretend that everything is fine.

Engagement is really all we have. When we are not connected to other people, everything else is flat and empty.

What I realize, though—particularly because I am at this stage of life—is that this is not really the direction I want to head. As easy as it might be to make my life and my interests smaller and narrower—and as simple as it would be to justify doing that after a long career devoted to a broader world, I don’t want to spend the next 30 years getting tinier and tinier. The longer I am retired, the more I think of this and I can see how understandable it is for people to lean in this direction. You’re in the safety of your own home, surrounded by friends and family. You manage your own schedule, enjoy the luxury of free time, and the indulgence of getting to concentrate on only those things you choose to. Why on earth would you add the chaotic political and social state of the world to that mix?

I was reminded of the answer last week when President Obama delivered his farewell address, stating how easy it is for people to “retreat into their own bubbles.” He blamed social media, fear, and partisanship, but I think people my age might also add fatigue. And yet, as much as I tire of hearing about the actions of politicians whose decisions seem disconnected from the people affected by them, I know that I want to live more fully and more responsibly, as hard as that might be.

“Show up. Dive in. Stay at it,” he said. “Sometimes, you'll win. Sometimes you'll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that could be a risk.” These words have resonated with me since he spoke them. And for me, they are true even beyond the realm of politics. While many people see the retirement years as our time to relax and enjoy the passing parade, I’m beginning to realize it should be almost the exact opposite. This is our time to use what we know and what we believe and engage more fully than we ever have.

I probably came by this idea honestly, though I didn’t think of it this way until now. My own parents, who were liberal but not particularly revolutionary, joined the Peace Corps as teachers when they were in their 60s and even returned to their host country to teach again after their term was up. It wasn’t easy for them to be away from the rest of us, but they grew in ways that surprised me. They made many new friends, learned a new language, and faced some tough situations that strengthened them overall. And I know, although neither of them used Obama’s words, that they went to Samoa believing in the goodness of the people they were helping.

Engagement is really all we have. When we are not connected to other people, everything else is flat and empty. It is what we glean from relationships that makes us rich and keeps us alive, and it’s with other people in the world that politics comes to life. I could choose to involve myself only with my friends and family and justify that this insulation is the reward I deserve for so many years of working out in the world and having to talk to so many people when at heart I’m an introvert. I’m just not sure I could live with myself if I did that.

The other day I was reading an article about the benefits of exercise for older people and I was struck by the idea that keeping our legs strong is what keeps us able to move, something not everyone in their last third of life can do with ease. In that same way, I think we have to keep our emotional muscles strong, as well. We have to listen to what people need, reach out to them to provide comfort and understanding, and open our hearts and our minds to their experiences.

It is counterintuitive that this would be the time in one’s life to eschew politics and the difficulties of the world. We are the experts, the wise women and men who have lived full lives and have all of that to offer those around us. This is the time to dive in, just as President Obama said. Anything else would be a waste.

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