Retirement stunned my psychiatrist friend.
Accustomed to being a provider, teacher, administrator, and therapist, he was suddenly adrift. It was as though the sails, oars, and motor that had energized his boat had disappeared. He didn’t know what to do with himself. “Who am I?” he asked daily, hoping for an answer. “What is my purpose?” “How do I fit in?”
I have heard his earnest lament during lunches over the past several years. At last I have caught the universal implications of Mark’s three questions. They are like a proof from my high school geometry days: Given (Who am I?), To Prove (What is my purpose?), and Proof (How do I fit in?) Similarly, they are like construction plans: raw materials (Who am I?), plans (What is my purpose?), and nailing it all together (How do I fit in?).
These three questions form a catechism for personal change. Not just retirement leaves people adrift. Divorce, moving one’s household, caring for a disabled family member, changing cities or countries, changing jobs, marriage, having a baby(ies)… After every such change, I suggest we would benefit from asking ourselves early on how the answers to these three questions are different. Here is a guide to addressing the three issues in the catechism for change, for finding new energy and direction for your boat—adrift after a major change.
- Who am I now? Fortunately, even under major, cataclysmic change, the answer to this question doesn’t change appreciably. We are our personality traits—sociable or solitary, casual or perfectionistic, skeptical or trusting. They are strongly based on genetics and are resistant to change. We are our mental abilities—verbal skill, visual/spatial skill, auditory acuity, kinesthetic prowess, strong (or weak) memory, critical thinking, creativity—and they don’t change. We are our values—spirituality, power, relationships, and they are not changed easily. We are our physical characteristics—allergies, hand-eye coordination, motion sickness proneness, and they seldom change. We are our memories—from growing up, from college days, from former jobs, from military service, from our travels and vacations, and those memories don’t change—we just add to them. So the answer to Mark’s first question is the easiest: Who am I? I am essentially who I’ve always been. Whether my change is retirement, divorce, or moving to Canada, I maintain my traits, abilities, values, physical characteristics, and memories. Change cannot take those away from me. But the answer to the next two questions can change immensely.
- What is my purpose now? This soul-searching question is about one’s goals, and goals can change dramatically when one’s life undergoes major change. In divorce, the former goal of building a quality relationship changes to building a strong sense of self, and then to perhaps finding a new partner. In retirement, the former goal of providing for my family changes to something else, perhaps something self-indulgent (I want to write a novel!) or socially beneficial (like volunteering at a school, hospital, or homeless shelter). We set new goals to express our changing purpose following major change. Goals for health, learning, spirituality, family. Stephen Covey called such goal-setting “sharpening the saw.”
- How do I fit in? This is the question about execution: What do I do with myself? It is about roles. Based on who I am and what my new purpose is, what roles do I need to play in order to be true to myself and to accomplish my goals? Teacher, grandparent, volunteer, scientist, friend, mechanic, tinkerer, chef, storyteller, housecleaner, musician, artist, writer, comedian, scholar, discussion group leader, soldier, politician, social activist, hobbyist, gardener, counselor, lover, organizer, consultant, manager, researcher, athlete, entertainer. Some of my roles will continue regardless of how my life changes (musician, chef, scholar), while other roles can come to a dramatic end with some kinds of change (spouse, at death of a partner; manager, at retirement; gardener, at a move to the inner city), and roles can be thrust upon us as the result of change (parent, upon the birth of a child; soldier, upon an act of war; health activist, upon suffering one’s first heart attack).
This is the time of year that many people take time to be introspective. That is the spirit of the New Year’s Resolution. That is the spirit of the Jewish high holy days, when they figuratively open the book of life on Rosh Hashanah, reflect on questions such as Mark’s catechism, and then close the book of life on Yom Kippur. For me, that time is between Christmas and New Year’s—a time of self-evaluation and personal accounting. What if we committed to beginning a journal in which we revisit Mark’s catechism both once a year and after a major change? That would certainly make for an interesting autobiography. I think I will begin a new file on my computer after finishing this draft, and I will enter an unending, recurring appointment in my Outlook calendar for December 26-31 of every year to update my answers to Mark’s three soul-searching questions.
Oh, one more thing. Mark has answered his questions and is comfortable in his new skin. Who he is hasn’t changed—outgoing intellect with a passion for people. His overarching purpose remains the same: to make the world a better place, with some attendant subgoals that are new. What has changed is how he fits in. His roles as gardener, musician, husband, parent, grandparent, and scholar have continued in retirement, but he has added volunteer, homeowner advocate, mentor to young’uns like me, and great grandparent.
When Mark read this draft, he shared some of his earlier answers to these questions. When he was a child, older brother was (in his judgment) smarter; younger sister, more beautiful. So Mark evolved his goal into being the responsible one of the family—he calls it being “Goody Two-shoes.” He would get up at dawn and work in the garden while his siblings slept in. In high school, his purpose was to “be a good student.” Goals and roles both can change upon experiencing a major life change. He recalled with a smile his niece’s glee at learning she had a new baby sister: “I’m not the baby anymore!” Indeed.