FALL FROM GRACE?

…..retirement isn’t an event, nor is it a one-size-fits-all proposition. It’s a process that takes time, especially as we look toward post-career lives that are likely to last as long as our working lives…Whether it is through a new line of work, service, learning, or other meaningful activities, Encore Transitions emphasizes post-career engagement as a foundation for vitality, happiness, and healthy longevity (Encore Transitions Program, University of Minnesota).

To fall from grace is an idiom referring to a loss of status, respect, or prestige (Wikipedia).

The University of Minnesota, where both Karen Rose and Karen Martha worked, is busy developing initiatives to support “the successful transition” of their employees and others in the community to the world after retirement.  As we boomers arrive en masse to a time when we are expected to retire, an emerging cottage industry acknowledges that:  (1) most of us won’t die before we are 80; (2) we are terrified of settling in to a life that consists only of golf or babysitting for our adorable grandchildren; and (3) we, apparently, need to be taught how to retire.

At first, the idea of retirement struck me as simply unthinkable.  I would be like Pablo Picasso, who completed his most massive sculpture—the “Chicago Picasso” —  when he was in his late 80s.  I would continue to become a slightly quieter, but significantly more reflective version of what I had always been.  But then I began to observe what happens to most people – perhaps not Picasso or other artists whose creativity seems to expand with age – but most of us.  We just get a little slower, a little more tired.  Perhaps irritating features of work that we overlooked because we were enthusiastic about most of it begin to annoy us more.  Maybe we began to annoy our colleagues more.  Time to think about leaving before people started to hint that it might be time….

The Reality: I loved the external validation that came with being an “expert” in my work life – someone whose wisdom was sought by younger colleagues and whose insights were considered important on various “strategic planning committee” assignments.  It was not as if I didn’t have a life outside of work – an adorable husband, good friends, two adult children who gratifyingly produced grandchildren who were also lovable.  But, I was reminded of the time when my children were young, and I would be introduced as “Erica and Margit’s mother” – it didn’t feel bad, because I knew that was would follow shortly was “she is a professor at the U”.  If retired and introduced as “Margit’s mother,” it would end there.   Unless I became something else.  A new identity is what the “Encore Transitions” program at the U promised to provide – is that promise a shield from invisibility?

If that doesn’t feel like a fall from grace, I don’t know what else I could call it.  Hang up those academic robes.  Remember that every book you have every written ends up on the publisher’s remainder list at about 10 years after it comes out.  Remember that you haven’t kept in touch with people who were good colleagues but who retired a few years before you.  No office.  No one to fix your computer for free. 

What is at stake? Conventional ambition…a desire for visibility and influence?  An inability to be imaginative about the present, much less the future?   I could get a life coach!  But wait, I am a life coach. Oops.

Parker Palmer (who is not retired…although he is nearly our age) writes about this compellingly in Let Your Life Speak (Jossey-Bass, 2000).  Chapter III of his book is titled “When Way Closes”.  He goes on to say,

As often happens on the spiritual journey, we have arrived at the heart of a paradox:  each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up.  All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around – which put the door behind us – and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls…(p 54)

That is the good news.  But it took Palmer a decade to figure this out.  And he was in his 30s and 40s when he confronted losing his first career and finding something else.  And I just re-read a book that is nearly 20 years old and still selling well.  I probably don’t have a decade to figure it out.  Ok – stop wishing that you were Parker Palmer instead of Karen Rose Seashore. 

The less good news is the rather depressing list of course topics included in the U of Minnesota’s “Encore Transitions” classes.  They do not reflect soul work, but approach the topic of retirement as figuring out how to manage the logistics (money, health care, etc.) and get busy with something that looks a lot like work  — but different in an indefinable way (even less definable when it is posed as designing a third act career….). Many people have raved about this program, so I know that the discomfort I feel is in me…

And I am left with a puzzlement.  How often does retirement feel like a fall from grace?   Consider the sad “retirement party” syndrome, where many people stand up to celebrate who you WERE, and add a few vague phrases about what YOU MIGHT DO.  I think that I should ritually burn my academic gown and hood instead!  Except I found it on the back of a door when I moved to a new office after several years of using the cheap rental robes the university provides for people who don’t have their own.  A kind person left it there.  I added a zipper.  Maybe someone else should have it.  Is that falling into grace in this instance?

3 thoughts on “FALL FROM GRACE?

  1. Beautifully written. Sounds like a wonderful and meaningful new chapter. You clearly still have a mission to help others… always an educator and friend in addition to all of those other hats you wear.

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  2. I am in my mid forties, and your blog about retirement and the pursuit of meaning spoke to me with the same strength and relevance. As I have always said, there is only one actual retirement, it is death. Since we don’t know who is dying first, we really cannot tell who is retiring first. There is so much else to do in this world, and with the acquired experience, expertise, connections, and hopefully pension to live decently, there is no better time than retirement to go after other meaningful pursuits with the wisdom of what does or does not work, and a courage unshackled by petty calculations of professional survival or glory. I look forward to many more years of working together to help share the privileges we have been blessed with and help leave this world better than we found it. See you in Morocco.

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