November 4, 2011

Going gently into that good night:

Different from what I thought.
For those whose adjustment has not gone as smoothly as they had wished, here are some notes I took from Jules Willing's book The Reality of Retirement.

It was this or psychoanalysis.

[Some notes, some paraphrased, some in direct quotes. And I didn't take notes on the chapters dealing with married life.]

Ninety percent of retirees (he's only talking about people retiring from professional jobs) have a health crisis the first year.
Retirement means the total loss of authority.
People try to deal with "safe" problems, i.e., those whose outcomes do not really matter. These safe problems disguise the cause of the anxiety. 
We get depressed because we're facing the question whether we were essential in the first place. We have to deal with the fact that what we thought of as our "good works" will be forgotten. We are thus psychologically swirling, and to a large extent unaware. If we are aware of some of it, there's little we believe we can do about it.

Retirement transforms a world where there was an active present, a meaningful past and a pregnant future into a world where there is no present and no future.

At retirement, all of these reactions happen at the same time:
— Recapitulation of a career
— Final judgments on that career
— Subtle devaluing of that career.

Simultaneously, there's the giving up of career goals never attained. Everyone underestimates the trauma of giving up unattained goals. A person facing retirement can scarcely do so except by diminishing their importance.
Upon entering retirement, you're at the very lowest point at which you’re capable of planning a future. You can’t visualize it, the data is too scanty. And you’re feeling loss, self-doubt, and psychic diminishment. Rational and analytical skills are unsuitable for introspective thinking.

The retiree has to invent his own concept of himself. He starts at a familiar point (e.g., golf, etc.), but plans don’t work and he's taken aback. He mistakes fantasy for reality.

He starts to make a big action plan for the future, but it's the worst possible time to create such a plan, because one's ability to think things out efficiently is severely limited at this juncture. We've become a deactivated mechanism, with zero readings for productivity and potential for further achievement, career progress, influence, authority and responsibility.

The entire value system is overthrown. We discard vital parts of our identities—most particularly the parts that have value to ourselves. To accept the fact we’re forever useless is psychologically in a class with suicide and self-mutilation, except these feelings are entirely interior experiences, unobserved by others.

We try to repress and conceal our emotional distress because we consider it be an inappropriate response, a fault or failing in ourselves.

The tools people carved out successful careers with had been judgmental skills, a capacity to be right more of then than wrong, first-hand knowledge of the terrain, memory, history, carefully built network of relationships, a structure of enormous complexity that must be constantly tended, skill of finding optimum line between one’s own career goals and the objectives of the organization. These must all be discarded at retirement.

Very few of us, no matter how long we have lived, know ourselves well enough to be certain that we have any worth aside from what we know and what we do. The idea of abandoning the career skills seems inevitably linked to the idea of self-diminishment. We have no foundation for imagining ourselves to be able to exist as a whole and functioning person outside the social and psychological world in which we made a career.

We ask ourselves: What parts of ourselves can we save and enlarge to fill up the empty spaces? What skills can be adapted to other purposes? What knowledge or experience can be reshaped and redirected? Whatever we can’t use or redirect will be junked.

There's thus a strong tendency to fill the void with almost any sort of goal, however arbitrary or poorly thought, the idea being not so much to achieve it as, by establishing it, to give one an air of purpose and direction. This finds its expression in busy-ness, preoccupation with plans and arrangements, investigation of all sorts of technical questions, and pinning down of details. The impression is of someone accelerating rather than slowing.

Busy-ness seems to be the universal remedy for easing the shock of plunging into the unknown.  When the initial plans don’t work, we tend to describe any plan as “getting it out of my system.” What we really get out of our systems is the myth of retirement as a perpetual holiday.

Retirement as an experience separate from aging is seen only peripherally and sometimes not at all. The dismantling of the social structure (i.e., the workplace) of the career life is far greater than one anticipates.
We are often unaware that we have been on a steady diet of small satisfactions, and we don’t know we’re addicted until the supply stops. 
Retirement does not assure a flow of accomplishment and satisfactions: they can't be provided in the early stages. There's no continuous level of activity that throws off these small sparks of satisfaction. It’s a period of stops and starts, of isolated and one-time problems. No day is ordinary, nothing is routine.
There is no larger structure into which we must fit. Nothing really has to be done now if we want to do it later, and practically no one is affected by whether or not it is done at all. Pressure must be almost entirely self-generated rather than imposed by others or outside events. Thus, we  become aware that some vital fluid has stopped flowing.

It is almost as if we sense that the struggle is essential to survival—and that there must be something to struggle against. The capacity to struggle must be fueled by inner forces when outer forces no longer provoke the adrenaline flow. We are addicts who must get our kick one way or another. The alternative is too awful to contemplate.

What we are struggling against is not placidity, but paralysis, the leveling down to a monotone, the loss of sharp reflex. Our great dread is that the jiggling marker will subside until it draws a straight line, like an electrocardiograph of a lifeless thing.

We feel disoriented and helpless at having to find an answer to the question of what we want to become. Throwback to childhood: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Activity is the operative word at this stage. When work no longer provides it, interests and hobbies are substituted. Early in retirement there’s an unnatural carryover of attitudes: you approach your hobby as you did your work: intensively. Hobby gets the highest priority, the most time, the greatest energy, the extensive investment. At this stage it’s job replacement, not a “leisure activity.”

One part of the universal dream is “the trip.” A trip performs other functions not as clear as a reward, the ultimate vacation. It is a reassurance, a validation of the fact that all is well, that one’s affairs are in order, that one can depart free of care and worry and put anxieties to rest. Corroboration that one is physically fit and active. Verifies you can afford some luxury. It is a safe first step into the unknown new way of life – you go to a place never visited, enjoy it, and return safely. A metaphor of reassurance that one can enter retirement and survive, even enjoy.

Two big differences between other vacations and this one: from this one you don’t come back and pick up where you left off, and retirement is not for an interval, it is for as long as you live. Retirement does not feel like a proper stopping place but more like a permanent interruption.

The retiree has met very few people who complete this process in less than a year or two; settling into new roles takes that long. These years are transition and time for discovery. You become aware of problems not anticipated and feelings never experienced. In a state of self-awareness, busy sorting out what is good from what is not, matching actual experience with prior expectation. You watch yourself critically, somewhat mistrustfully.
How many of the things one “never had time for” remain undone or forever uncompleted in retirement. Part of the revelation is that many of our yearnings are for things we really didn’t want, that we have been nourishing ourselves on spurious notions of what we are capable of — we learn we’ve created our own myths. We may sign up for a course or two, then go onto other things, fool around with a few chess books then lose interest, begin great and little adventures we set store in but find them without nourishment. Part of the adjustment in the early stages is this sampling and discarding of long-held ambitions.

Retirement brings an end to striving. One no longer has to measure up, to achieve, to produce, to deserve whatever is received, to protect and defend whatever one has won.

No one is keeping score anymore; the game is over.

It seems logical that a new game should begin, but this trail of logic will never get to the question “What am I now free for?” this is a question that looks to the future, unlike it’s counterpart, “What am I free from?” which looks at the past. An entirely different equation thus: retirement = freedom = release of formerly employed energy = action in new directions.
While making the abrupt turn into retirement, we have slowed down for the curve and the road ahead has not yet fully come into view. This is the point at which so many of us go off at a tangent and miss the right road altogether. What successfully retired people take most pleasure in is themselves — who they are and what they are becoming.

The act of relinquishing all at once your unattained career goals is an act of profound meaning and cries out for recognition. Without a ceremony of closing and renunciation, retirees have no way to mourn the causes that now become forever unfinished business, to honor the intentions that will never be fulfilled. To turn away from them so casually is to trivialize them and diminish themselves.

For one's children, “home” was the place where parents remained and children departed.
Retired parents don’t know the extent to which the place where the family had lived, or the familiar place where they as parents were, becomes for the children a fixed point, firm ground in a shifting world. It was a place from which they measured psychological distance; it was what they were growing away from, achieving independence of. So, if the retiree changes his home for somewhere new, he has to examine what effect that has on the kids.

Payment. The assumption is the retiree should be happy to do for nothing what he used to be paid to do. What is most resented is being denied the option of foregoing payment. Feeling of being written out of the economy. I must pay for everything, but no one expects to pay me for anything.
The distinction generally made was that retirees approved donating time and energy to causes outside commercial considerations, though these did not use their best skills. They balked at being used by those with self-interest: e.g. a hospital that saw them as a ready pool of free labor and also at using retired volunteers in ways that deprived working people of jobs.

It may come down to this: that in our culture, value is measured in dollars and expressed in price, so the retiree gets the message that his services have no real value. He’s expected to be glad of the opportunity to get the reward of satisfaction instead of money, because the remaining alternative is the veiled threat of not being permitted to participate at all.

We have become a new form of leisure class — a leisure class of moderate means. We have long know the idle rich and the idle poor; what is new is the idle middle class.

Primary characteristics of retirees: they have incomes for which they do not work. They have 10-20 more years of productive life, but no clearly formulated sense of the purpose of these years. They are a generation whose only established relation to the rest of society is to constitute a market for what others produce.

We need more than this to justify our existence. We must consciously try to invent a future, find purposes and goals appropriate to this stage of life and to make it separate and distinct from aging.

Self-evident solution: The person set to retire should develop outside interests and activities, but they must be designed to approximate and embrace similar kinds of tension, high level of difficulty, possibility of failure, etc. that (business) professionals became addicted to, that kick off the conditioned responses in us that keep us feeling alive and worthwhile. These suggest a good general direction: the task must provide a genuine sense of achievement, it is a real-life task, it enables using our authority, and it involves some risk (which gives it the bitter tang of reality that takes it out of the class of things we think of as hobbies and interests).

Most of the books on retirement advocated advance planning.
The remedy would be to find a way to retire gradually or partially.
Negotiate something with your employer.

We should recognize the wisdom of investing both time and money in preparing ourselves for retirement, yet we tend to feel impoverished if we do anything that lessens our income or our capital, and wasteful if we spend any substantial amount of time in getting ready to retire.

Common thread amongst retirees: Calmness. They are invariably active — not in the level of busy-ness, but in the connection, the maintenance of linkage between the self and other selves. Diversity: mix with other generations and other kinds of people.

Personal values will change. The middle class values power over others and our own lives and possessions; acquisition of material comforts and conveniences, wardrobe, kitchen, nice home, car; progress in such forms as upward mobility, promotion; security of social and professional recognition and steadily growing financial reserves. 
In retirement we don't much change them. Security does not increase, the upper limits of upward mobility have already been reached, power does not grow, the time for acquiring turns into a time for disposing of things no longer necessary. We don’t strive for promotions, raises. We will not get much richer or better known. We don’t really need the big house and the things in it. We are no longer in charge of anything except ourselves.

We feel we have finished with all the important things and what remains seems comparatively trivial, not enough to devote our lives to. We need a new list of important things, and the only place we can look for new values is among those what weren’t very high on our first list. And that means making fundamental changes in our reasons for living.

There must be developed a focus in one’s life other than the all-consuming intense focus of successfully earning a living.

Part of the act of retiring is the act of altering, perhaps reversing, the values we have been living by, a slow and difficult process that must begin long before we put our value system to the test of retirement.

I also looked at Tillie Olsen's Silences. She quotes Rebecca Davis:
"Drift with the stream because you cannot live deep enough to find the bottom."

1 comment: