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How to Fill My Soul

Retirement is harder than you think it’s going to be. At least it was for me. Clearly, I had a tough enough time figuring out my path that I ended up going back to work less than a year after I’d left it. But I don’t want to work forever. I love what I do, but I don’t want my job to be the only way I can find meaning in the outside world.

When you’re sitting on the work side of the equation, that doesn’t seem like a problem at all. Looking out into the brightness of your retirement future from a cold, hard desk, keeping yourself engaged and involved in the world seems like a no-brainer. And it might well be to lots of people. Not so much for me. Because I work in higher education, I have the great good fortune to get to communicate, problem-solve, and dream with a wide range of intelligent, interesting, creative people every single day. From the students to the staff, I am surrounded by people who are taking risks, trying new things, pushing themselves to make a meaningful contribution, and standing up against injustice. Obviously, though, that kind of life can also be stressful, frustrating, and exhausting—which is part of why retirement often sounds so amazing.

I can stop worrying about what other people think of retirement or of working—something I took quite seriously the first time.

But once you’ve caught up on your sleep and let the most exasperating scenarios fall from your memory, it is really up to you to figure out what you want your days to look like and feel like. It's also up to us to determine where we'll get that sense of meaning and engagement that we had when we were working. It turns out that our need and desire to be absorbed in something outside ourselves doesn’t disappear just because we’re ready for more free and open time. I know this isn’t true for everyone, but it definitely was for me. As an introvert, it never occurred to me how much I would feel the loss of being involved with something interesting and important.

Fortunately, I was able to return to work, because I know now that I hadn’t figured all of this out yet. I actually believed that I was ready to have a much smaller life. But, I downsized in a way that didn’t take into account some of the things I really needed. So now that I’m thinking about how I want Retirement, Part II to look. And, I realize that the last time I did this I was focusing mostly on stopping working, not on what I would need once I was home full-time. I believe most of us have a limited view of retirement, whether we're leaving a meaningful job or adjusting to an empty nest. We think of recreational activities, volunteering, traveling, spending time with our families, and sleeping in—all of which sound lovely. Although each of those activities might fill my soul in a certain way, they aren’t always enough.

So here I am, back at work, mid-pandemic, wondering what I really need to fill these needs in myself when I’m not working anymore. The answer is not simple. As I’m fond of saying these days, it’s going to take some experimenting, some exploring, and some trial and error. I didn’t fully understand that the first time around. I thought I had it all figured out. What made me know that I didn’t was the speed at which I jumped to return to work when asked.

A good portion of this discovery will have to take place in the midst of doing it, of course, or I will plan my way into an untenable, unsustainable corner. But I can start thinking now about who I am and what I need. I can stop worrying about what other people think of retirement or of working—something I took quite seriously the first time. Probably the most true statement I can think of at this point is that the retirement is mine—to figure out, to enjoy, to use as a source of growth, and to stumble through as I figure it out. It’s all new territory, which is scary. But undiscovered lands are exciting and enriching in themselves—something I often forget.

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