What Is Retirement (and Life) for Anyway?


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?

ReFirement Not Retirement

I have a friend who like me walked away from his job in 2010. Here in Kentucky, where people talk about retirement as being “retarred,” my friend likes to refer to himself as “retarded.” Despite its political incorrectness, his line usually draws a laugh or at least a smile.

Last week when he was speaking at Berea College, the great spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox, had a better line. He said the adjective “retired” should itself be retired. It should be replaced, Fox said, with the word “refired.” Of course, he meant that the “third age” should not be characterized by withdrawal from the struggle for peace and justice. Rather it should represent a time for refocusing, re-evaluating and re-committing.

Matthew’s redefinition reminded me of another friend of mine (also a former priest and one of my colleagues in the Columban ordination class of 1966). A few years ago when we were both attending a reunion of former members of the Society of St. Columban, I had made a couple of public remarks – I forget about what. Afterwards my classmate said, “I can see you still have ‘the fire;’ I just don’t feel it anymore.” And yet as I spoke with him and his wife, it was clear to me that they both had as much “fire” as I did. They were both engaged, reading, thinking, discussing, and trying to be the change we’d all like to see in the world and in the church. They were refired but didn’t see it.

The fire in their bellies and in mine could be called “enthusiasm” in its etymological sense. The word comes from the Greek phrase “en Theos” – being “in God.”  A person who lives “on fire” lives in God; she or he is enthusiastic. She or he recognizes the spark of the divine in herself, in others, and in all of creation. As a result, she lives accordingly. To do so as never before is my refirement aspiration.

So I’m going to stop thinking of myself as retired. Instead I’m now thinking in terms refirement. It’s a time when as never before I’m free to go where the spirit leads me. Doing this blog is part of it. So is being faithful to the daily practice of meditation which by definition is immersion en Theos. Through both the blog and meditation I’m trying do my small part to rescue Jesus’ radical vision of a world with room for everyone (he called it the Kingdom of God).

Retirement Reflections: Lots of Travel So Far …

I turned 72 the other day. I’ve been officially “retired” for about 26 months. It’s time to assess my new status. I’ll try to do that in a series of postings on retirement. No doubt there are few who will care. And why should they? No, I don’t expect that many will read these postings.  I’m thinking of them more or less as therapy for me.

To begin with, I can’t tell you how many times friends and former colleagues have asked me “. . . and how do you like retirement?” The lilt of their question and the look on their faces suggests that they expect me to say “It’s been terrific. I’ve never been happier.”

However, it’s been more complicated than that. For one thing, I don’t think my retirement really began till about two months ago. That’s because since my end-of-career party in May of 2010 I’ve been teaching off and on in Costa Rica – in a Latin American Studies Program. Even apart from that, my bride of 36 years, Peggy, and I have been traveling almost non-stop. So I feel the jury’s still out on my particular retirement – at least if you think of it as kicking back, slowing down and withdrawing from the fray.

Let me get more specific. Travel-wise, here’s the way I’ve been spending my time for the past 26 months:

  • Three eight-week stints in Costa Rica teaching in a Latin American Studies program = 6 months
  • Five months in South Africa accompanying Peggy on her sabbatical in Cape Town.
  • Ten weeks with Peggy in Mexico while she researched her forthcoming book.
  • Three weeks in Costa Rica for Christmas with our entire immediate family (2011)
  • Two weeks with our daughter Maggie’s family on a Mexico vacation (2010)
  • Two weeks with Maggie’s family on a Mexico vacation (2011)
  • Five day visit with our eldest son, Brendan in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico where he’s stationed in the U.S. Embassy (2011)
  • Four visits with Maggie in her home in Westport, CT = 2 ½ months total
  • Three visits with our youngest son, Patrick in New Orleans where he taught first grade in the Teach for America program = 1 week total
  • Two summers in Canadian Lakes, MI – in the lake cottage we purchased from the estate of Peggy’s recently deceased father = 3 months.

TOTAL TRAVEL TIME: about 21.25 of 26 months or well more than the majority of my first two years + of retirement has been spent on the road.

I’m feeling it’s about time to settle down and find out what leaving employment behind is really like.

But so far It hasn’t been all travel. At the beginning, I set some definite goals for myself that covered areas of my life I wanted to grow in. Looking back, I can see that I’ve met some of those goals. Others . . . not so much. . . .  More about that in my next retirement posting.