Last night Peggy and I had some dear friends over for drinks and conversation. Our friends retired two years ago – about a year after I did so myself. So more or less naturally, our conversation turned to retirement and its ups and downs – and to Florida and warmer climes.
The ups of retirement are obvious. They include not having to show up at the office any more. They entail being free each day to decide what to do. Travel, movies, hobbies like golf and tennis can be pursued freely in retirement. There’s more time to spend with children and grandchildren. And there’s space to think, write, study and pray. All of that is what people dream about doing in their golden years.
And so far, even though Peggy has not yet retired (and probably won’t for 3 or 4 years), my first years of retirement have been filled to overflowing with more of the expected ups than I can count. I’ve spent parts of 3 semesters in Costa Rica teaching in a Latin American Studies Program that was completely enjoyable and fun. The program served North American students from a large number of Christian colleges and universities. It was their “term abroad.” And it introduced them to the realities of the underdeveloped world, taking them to impoverished parts of Costa Rica, living with local families in Nicaragua and investigating first-hand the successes and shortcomings of socialist revolution in Cuba.
My part in the program was to introduce our Evangelical (and Republican) students to liberation theology. On the whole, the students were surprisingly open and receptive. And though I’ve always loved teaching, I’ve never found it as enjoyable as in Costa Rica.
Then last spring Peggy and I used her sabbatical to spend five months in Cape Town, South Africa – or, as they say, in the heart of “whitest Africa.” We were completely captivated by Cape Town which we agreed is the most beautiful city we’ve ever seen. We loved Table Mountain and the beautiful sea vistas everywhere we traveled. We also learned a great deal in South Africa, not only about politics and history, but about African spirituality and the powerful energy of rock formations subtly transformed by the San and Koi-Koi Peoples to track the movements of the heavens.
We traveled South Africa’s “Wine Route” and visited game parks with our grandchildren and their parents. I played golf with my son Brendan on a few of South Africa’s best courses. We passed a day on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 17 of his 28 years of punishment in South African jails. We also spent weeks with Ann Hope and Sally Timmel, colleagues of Steve Biko with a life-long commitment to activism and the struggle against apartheid. We compared notes with them about common experiences, shared friendships, theology and spirituality. What a privilege that was!
With South Africa behind us, we’re now looking forward to five months in India. Can you imagine that? My Peggy has won her second Fulbright Fellowship (the other having brought us to Zimbabwe for a year back in ’97-’98). During this Fulbright term, Peggy will be teaching in Mysore. This will be our second trip to India. In 2004 we attended the World Social Forum in Mumbai.
This time we’ll be living in India with our daughter Maggie, our son-in-law, Kerry, and their three small children, Eva (4), Oscar (2), and Orlando (10 months). Kerry is taking his own sabbatical from his work in finance. So this will be an extraordinary opportunity not only to learn from a deeply spiritual culture, but to bond deeply with our grandchildren.
And then there’s this blog. It’s been unexpectedly fulfilling. I’ve never written as much as I have over these past three years, not only on my blog site, but on OpEdNews and in our local newspaper. Writing a homily each week has kept me grappling with my life-long commitment to spirituality, faith and theology. It’s all helped me think more clearly about life and its purpose.
Actually I’ve thought of the blog as a vehicle for reclaiming the formal priesthood I left more than 36 years ago – as has my involvement in the planning committee of a local Ecumenical Table Fellowship. I’ve seen this new work as a demonstration of the fact that Christian faith isn’t synonymous with fundamentalism. Approaching faith historically and contextually can recover the authentic teaching of Yeshua the Nazarene (the opposite of fundamentalism) and engage and animate radicals and progressives in the process.
How are those for retirement ups? At some level, I couldn’t ask for more.
But then there have been unexpected downs. With retirement comes a loss of identity. With my particular work as a college teacher, I had one of the best jobs I could think of. Imagine getting paid to read, study, write, and travel – all so that you might have hours of interesting conversations with young people?
Yes there was drudgery involved – papers to grade, committees, endless meetings, “administrivia.” But there was no heavy lifting. And there were those long vacations – three weeks at Christmas, three months in the summer, and mid-term breaks fall and spring. The “pay” for teaching went way beyond a monthly check. It involved those conversations I mentioned, but also the resulting life-long friendships, “turning on” students to life’s big questions, seeing that “light” go on, and watching students take their places as agents of transformation in the world.
Most of that (except the now-endless vacation) disappeared with retirement. And whereas previously I could walk across Berea’s campus and meet my students and former students at virtually every turn, I now find students (and myself!) largely anonymous. I miss the interactions with young people. I even have to show my identity card when I enter the Seabury Athletic Center to do my morning exercises. “Mike who. . .?”
On the one hand I find the question liberating, but also a little depressing. It means my identity is gradually slipping away. It all reminds me of the inevitable: the final slipping away, and the complete loss of identity and of any conscious trace of having been here at all. That’s not a morbid thought. It’s simply a fact. Following our deaths and within a generation or less, virtually anyone I know will disappear entirely from everyone’s memory.
And that brings me to my question: what is life for anyway? Truth is: I don’t know for sure.
And that’s where faith comes in. I’ve come to understand faith as taking a leap into what we don’t know for sure. I mean life might be just about family, travel, good food and drink, getting strokes from grateful students, breaking par or watching movies. However, I don’t think it is.
Instead, I’ve come to agree with the great mystics of all traditions – Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian. At their highest peak, all of those traditions come together on the following points:
1. There’s a spark of the divine within each of us – our deepest identity.
2. Each human being is called to live from that divine place – to actualize God’s love in the world.
3. And that’s the purpose of life.
4. Gradually, as one strives for such actualization, s/he begins to see divine presence in everything, in all of creation.
So that’s what life is about for me – seeing God everywhere and responding accordingly. That’s what retirement is about. Sixteen years ago I decided to leap in that direction. My jump has involved the daily practice of meditation, repetition of my mantram, training the senses, spiritual reading from the mystics, spiritual companionship, slowing down, and one-pointed attention – the eight-point program of Eknath Easwaran, the great meditation teacher from Kerala state in India. In retirement I finally have time to follow Easwaran’s program more wholeheartedly than ever.
None of this excludes the other activities I’ve mentioned. Peggy and I will still travel, and spend time with our children and grandchildren. I’ll still hack around on the golf course, study, write, and give the occasional class. And I’ll continue learning to grapple with and mostly enjoy my anonymity and nobody-ness.
But meditation and its allied disciplines puts all those things in perspective. And it gets me ready for my next incarnation. [Oh yes, I’ve come to agree with the mystics (including Yeshua) that life won’t end for me or anyone else when those last memories fade . . . .]
Do you agree?