Retirement: A Whole New Life

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,…All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever….there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, 9, NRSV

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the fist earth had passed away….And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” Revelation 21:1, 5, NRSV

By Will Willimon

My text is from Ecclesiastes, one of the Bible’s most depressing, cynical books. “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, . . . All is vanity.” Have you ever felt like that, looking back on your life? Your accomplishments, crumble in your hands as dust. Your great achievements seem as so much chasing after the wind.

No wonder the writer of Ecclesiastes feels this way about his life. “There is nothing new under the sun,” he says. Life is just one thing after another, a great wheel in which there is no beginning, and no end. Life is, in Shakespeare’s words, full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Ecclesiastes is one of the only books in the Bible with a cyclical view of history. History doesn’t begin or end, it’s not going anywhere. History is a great cycle, a circle. There is nothing new under the sun. When there is no ending or beginning, no real newness, life is depressing.

I want to talk to you about something that nearly everyone here will do, some of you sooner than later. I want to talk about retirement. I have a problem right from the start. When I preach, I like to preach from the Bible, take a biblical text and work from there. Trouble is, it is only until recently that humanity lived long enough or had enough stored up goods to “retire” in our sense of the word. The Bible, particularly the Hebrew scripture, considers old age, a long life, a great gift of God. But retirement, what to do with our old age or our now widespread long life, is a relatively recent problem.

I’m unhappy with the word “retirement.” It’s a cousin of other similarly uninspiring words like retreat, remove, regress. “Retirement” makes it sound as if, in our last years of life, we withdraw from the fray, settle in, settle down, quit moving, quit living for all intents and purposes. Yet we’re learning that each stage of life has it’s challenges, it’s different demands and new adventures, including retirement.

I recall a student whom I was teaching in seminary. He was serving his first little church as a student pastor. One day he complained to me about his congregation. “The median age of my congregation is over sixty,” he declared. “And you know how old people are.”

“How are they?” I asked.

“You know – set in their ways, creatures of habit, slow to change, stuck in their ruts. They don’t want any innovation or change in the way we do things at the church.”

Not two days before I had read an article on retirement which noted that, of the six or eight greatest transitions you must make in life, the most traumatic changes, four or five of them will occur after sixty-five. Transitions, radical moves like declining health, loss of independence, unemployment, the loss of a spouse are among the major moves of this stage of life.

I noted this to the young student pastor adding, “Which suggests that it’s not fair to say that these older people are refusing to change. They are about to drown in some of the most dramatic changes life offers. When you’ve buried the man you have lived with for forty years, or you are forced out of your life work, about the last thing you want is to come to church and have some upstart young preacher say, ‘Let’s do something new and innovative today.’ They’re sinking in a flood of innovation!”

We once thought of adulthood as that time in life when you at last put down roots, hunkered down, burrowed in for the rest of your life, and stayed there. The really important developmental events occurred in infancy, childhood, or youth. We now know that adulthood is best construed as a series of passages (thank you, Gail Sheehy), of life challenges which is far from stable.

For some years I have taught a course to first year students at Duke called, “The Search for Meaning.” [1] We study the ways various people have found meaning in their lives, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. We also push the students to articulate their own sense of meaning in life, to write down where they are headed and who they plan to be when they grow up.

I have noted that most of them think to themselves, “I’m all confused and in flux now but, when I am twenty-five, I will have decided who I want to be, I will settle down, settle in, and be fixed.”

It doesn’t take much insight to see that life is not at all like that. For instance, I note how odd it is for us to ask students, “What do you plan to do (or be) when you graduate from Duke?”

They respond by saying, “I’m going to be an electrical engineer.” Or “I’m going into medicine.”

But then we note that the average American goes through seven job changes in a lifetime. Someone from the Engineering School told me the other day that they did a study of their graduates and only thirty percent of them were in engineering just twenty years after graduation!

See my point? These students had better be preparing for a more challenging life than merely figuring out what you want to do for the rest of your life, getting that, expecting to do that for the rest of your life.

Is that why increasing numbers of educators are coming to speak of intelligence not in terms of IQ, a fixed intellectual quotient in you since birth, but rather intelligence defined as the ability to adapt? Life is this long series of adaptations, moves, changes, beginnings and endings.

As a pastor, I’ve watched a good number of people move into retirement. I’m moving ever closer there myself. And though, from what I’ve observed, there are a number of challenges of the allegedly “Golden Years,” one stands out above all the rest:

Retirement is a whole new life.

I’m here paraphrasing from a great book by my friend, Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life.[2] It’s Reynolds’ moving account of his struggle through cancer surgery, recovery, and beyond. Some of you may have read it. What Reynolds has to say there is far too rich to be condensed, but I think in fair to say that one of the most important insights of the book, and the insight which lends its title is that he experienced his illness as an invitation to a whole new life.

Reynolds tells how he denied his cancer, how he was filled with anger and resentment when he realized that he was very sick, how he struggled in the painful months after his debilitating, but life-saving surgery. Here was a once robust, active man, at the prime of his life, the peak of his career, reduced to life in a wheelchair.

But Reynolds depicts his path back as a dawning realization that, in his words, “The old Reynolds has died.”[3] His old self, so many of the aspects of his former existence which he loved, were over. He could not get them back. Now, he could spend the rest of his life in grief for what he had lost, pitifully attempting to salvage some bits and pieces, or he could begin “a whole new life.”

Reynolds chose the latter. He began again. He started over. It was not the life he might have chosen, if he were doing the choosing, but it was a good life, a life worth living. He now enjoys the greatest period of artistic productivity of his life, turning out more novels, plays, and poems, than ever.

“Find your way to be somebody else,” he advises, “the next viable you – a stripped-down whole other clear-eyed person, realistic as a sawed-off shotgun and thankful for air, not to speak of the human kindness you’ll meet if you get normal luck.”[4]

Now, retirement is rarely as traumatic as spinal cancer. Yet I do think there are analogies to be made. From what I’ve observed, the people who fail miserably at the challenges of the later years are those who fail to see retirement as a definite transition from one plane of existence to another. They attempt to salvage too much of their former life.

I’m haunted by what a woman told me of her mother. Her mother had worked at minimum wage in a garment factory for over forty years. When she retired, her children thought she would be thrilled. She was miserable. She cried. She hung around at the gate of the factory many mornings, vainly hoping that they would call her back to work. She even took an assumed name and tried to get hired, representing herself as another person.

That won’t work. Your old life goes on without you. They somehow get by down at the office without your services. The school doesn’t fall in after your last day in the classroom.

You can’t get the old life back. You need to lay hold of a whole new life. I think those of us who are moving toward retirement (and isn’t that just about everyone here?) could do much better to prepare ourselves to make that transition to a whole new life. If our only life is our work, we are in big trouble unless we can find some new life after work. Churches could do a better job of helping our members to prepare themselves and to support one another during the transition into retirement.

We need some good rituals for retirement. In Japan, for instance, there is a tradition in which, when a woman reaches retirement age, she takes all of her pots and pans and presents them to her daughter or daughter-in-law. From then on she is expected not to enter the kitchen. That part of her life is over. A new life has begun

Many Japanese men begin retirement by dressing in a red kimono and doing something adventuresome that they have not done before, like climbing Mount Fuji. People need to be encouraged to do something visible and physical which will symbolize their important transition.

Thomas Naylor and I wrote a book arising out of our first year student seminar called The Search for Meaning. To our surprise and delight, a number of churches have reported using the book in congregational “Pre-Retirement Seminars.” We’re delighted that the book we wrote with college freshmen in mind has proved to be helpful for those in their sixties. We are reminded that one of the most important skills one can have is the ability to take a deep breath, to look out over your life, and start over with a whole new life.

As Christians, we do not believe that history is a meaningless cycle going nowhere, one thing after another. We believe that God is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. God not only gets us going at the beginning but also meets us at the end. More to the point of the challenges of retirement, God gives fresh beginnings, new days, new lives. The Bible opens with the Genesis declaration, “Let their be light!” as a new world comes into being and, as today’s scripture has reminded us, closes with the Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new!”

Between here and there, we are asked to make many transitions, each with their attendant pain, uncertainty, and their promise. One of the most important of our life transitions is retirement.

My father-in-law spent his entire life as a pastor in a variety of United Methodist churches in South Carolina. Mr. Parker had thus spent his whole life in black suits and white shirts as moral exemplar of the community, doing his duty in the week-in-week-out care of his churches.

When he retired, he bought a large camping trailer and he and Mrs. Parker pulled the trailer toward New England for a long-awaited retirement celebration trip. Somehow, on the way from South Carolina to New England, he took a wrong turn and found himself driving down the middle of Manhattan, pulling that trailer, lost, not knowing which way to turn.

A car blew its horn at him, pulled up beside him, and the driver shouted, “Old man I wish you would figure out where you’re going or get out of the way!”

Mr. Parker said that he thought to himself, “I’m up here in New York, a long way from South Carolina. Nobody here knows that I was a Methodist preacher. I’m retired.”

So he rolled down his window, looked over at the man in the car beside him and said, “And I wish you would go to hell!”

Retirement. It’s a whole new life.

The Rev. Will Willimon was Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church and Dean of Duke Chapel. 

[1]  Thomas Naylor and William H. Willimon, The Search for Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).

[2] Reynolds Price, A whole New Life: An Illness and A Healing (New York: Atheneum, 1994).

[3] Ibid., pp. 183, ff.

[4] Ibid., p. 183.

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