I have been re-thinking the word “retirement.” For some it is a welcome word, even a desired word. For others it is intimidating and foreign. Some look forward to a day when their nine-to-five labors are behind them. Others cannot imagine what it might be like, but fear it will be empty and meaningless when that day comes.
I worked for four decades as a minister. All that time I was in the faith business and the people business. At last I decided to retire from that, to leave my beloved New York City and return to my equally beloved North Carolina. Doing so was refreshing … for a few brief weeks, but only a few. Soon I realized something vital was missing. I would rise every morning as I always had, but to do what? To go where? To meet with whom? The something vital that was missing was a sense of purpose.
When I retired from Marble Collegiate Church, I walked away from leading a congregation on 5th Avenue in New York, the oldest Protestant church in America, a church previously served by Norman Vincent Peale and Arthur Caliandro, a church with five thousand members whom I cherished and satellite communities from New Jersey to Florida to California to Australia. I sometimes complained about the long hours, the too-frequent meetings, the constant workload, the demands and expectations, the long list of public appearances. But once all that was gone, in a word, I found myself not know how to find myself – not knowing exactly who I was anymore. My hyperactive life of four decades was suddenly all too leisurely. When I lost my sense of purpose, I lost my sense of self.
Epiphanies come in all fashions, some mystic and moving, others pedantic and pedestrian. Either way, when they come we are best advised to stop what else we are doing and pay attention. Mine came, of all things, when watching a TV commercial, in fact, one I had seen a hundred times before. But this time I paid attention. There was Academy Award winning actor, J.K. Simmons, delivering his standard line in deadpan fashion: “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” And suddenly the light came on. It had flickered and glimmered briefly in a thousand ponderings before, but that moment it shone brightly. I know a thing or two because for over forty years I have seen a thing or two. Whatever a person does professionally, if they do it for four decades without learning life lessons that can be applied in other arenas, then they should have been doing something else. We know a thing or two because we have seen a thing or two.
My epiphany was that for most of us, we do not “retire.” Instead, we simply “retire from.” We retire from one job, one place of business, one daily routine. But we carry with us everything we have learned there, every experience, every insight, every ounce of wisdom. And all that becomes equipment for moving forward. In my case, I had spent all those years in the faith business and the people business. So, I began teaching in the Religion Department of a university a half hour from my house. In so doing, all the previous faith business became a portfolio carrying exegetical information and understandings to share with others just beginning a similar journey. Additionally, I began accepting speaking invitations to non-church audiences – civic clubs, corporate conventions, campus functions. City-to-city I go sharing hope and motivation and life skill information in non-religious language, insights that I have gathered by observing people in the real-and-raw circumstances of living across all those years. I “retired from” the place I had known and loved. But that did not dictate literally “retiring” so far as life and a future replete with meaning and purpose and contributing are concerned.
So I am re-thinking retirement, seeing it no longer as the end of something beautiful. Rather, as educators so wisely describe Graduation Day, retirement can be a Commencement, a fresh beginning equipped by all that you have learned before. Whether you embark upon a new professional endeavor or devote yourself to volunteerism or gardening or culinary arts or auditing classes at a college or participating in community theater or tutoring in an elementary school or visiting in a nursing home or organizing a grass roots advocacy group for some issue close to your heart or spending quality time with your grandchildren or traveling or writing a blog or any of a thousand other things, meaning, purpose, and adventure are there for the taking. You haven’t retired. You have “retired from” something. And that means you have “retired for” something else yet to come.
Browning must have had his own epiphany. How else could he have stated it so clearly and with such insight?
“Grow old along with me,
The best is yet to be.”