Retirement Can Be a Bitch

To go on—at least for a while—you must find a way to be OK with yourself

Retirement is a tricky business. It can even be downright uncomfortable. I'm still trying to figure it out. I know what you're thinking: What's to figure out, buddy? All you have to do now is wake up late, drink coffee and watch TV all day. Well, maybe that will work for the first few weeks, but how much coffee and TV can a person manage—even if (or when) that person switches from coffee to something a tad stronger. The problem, my friend, with retirement is boredom—plain and simple and debilitating.

A disclaimer first: I know how damn privileged I am to even have the luxury of complaining about retirement. And I know that in these difficult times, there are many people my age and older who will never have the opportunity to retire, and many of those who do, forced out of work by aging bodies and minds, will have to spend their final years living in poverty or squeaking by on thoroughly inadequate social security payments.

But still, I've gotta say it, retirement can be a bitch. The thing is, that most of us, before retirement were very busy people. I was a teacher, high school and college, and used to having a place to go to every weekday, and to have a community of people who I interacted with. That job and community provided me with a large part of my identity. I was Mr. Freedman to my students and Rob to my colleagues. I think I mostly had their respect and I was good at what I did. Now, who knows what or who I am. Just that guy who lives in the house up the street, whose car is almost always in the driveway because he doesn't have any place to go and nothing special to do.

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There are the usual responses and remedies: Get a hobby, volunteer, meditate, join a group, read the books you always meant to. And, I've tried all of them. Some with more success than others, but still they don't seem to fill that empty space in the heart that keeps insisting, you're done old man, just wasting time now, waiting for the final exit. The thing is, whether you become a wood turner or keep bees or volunteer at the local library, your efforts are still beside the point. Fight against it as you will, the retired person, by definition, is no longer part of the work force and so is not significant. Not a real person.

I know, I know—I'm whining here. So, enough of all that, true though it may be. To go on, and I do intend to go on—at least for a while—one MUST find a way to be OK with himself or herself. Here are some ways that I've been working on that help me cope. Some days they're even effective.

I try to get up at a regular hour; 8:30 works for me. That way I feel like I have things to do, a day to look forward to and live in full. (Part of the trickiness of retirement is in trying to convince yourself of things that may not be entirely true, but life is like that anyway, huh?) After getting up, seeing to my morning ablutions, medications and breakfast, I take a moment to feel an appreciation for being alive and for having the luxury of not having to go to work or to have to do anything of vital importance except to live. That's a great feeling—the upside of this whole deal, what we've worked for all our lives. Then, if you're as lucky as I am and live in a beautiful place, you can take a moment or more to appreciate the beauty of the world around you. It's been scientifically proven that being out in nature, even for a brief time, increases one's sense of happiness. I live on the Oregon coast, where it rains a lot but even on the rainiest of those days, I still feel moved by looking out at the trees blowing in the wind and the clouds rolling through, and, of course, the mighty Pacific Ocean. I feel at peace as I take my daily walk on the beach. Peace of mind—isn't that what we're all aiming for? And I get to have it, at least for an hour or two. No need to be greedy. Joy and happiness are not constant states.

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The next thing on my agenda is to get busy. I don't necessarily mean doing physical labor, though that does seem to be a way that some guys I know cope with the retirement thing. They head out to the garage first thing in the morning and start pounding nails into 2x4s, or tear out a perfectly good kitchen counter and replace it with a new one. It keeps them busy. I get it. But usually those same guys don't have much to say in conversation.

Don't get me wrong, physical work is a great antidote to boredom and even keeps your property looking good, but there are other ways to leave the house and stay busy. I break these adventures into two categories: activities done for and with the body, and activities mainly done with the mind. It's more important now than ever to take care of your body and to use it in whatever ways are still doable. I go to the local YMCA pretty regularly to work out. I also surf, which is the one thing that can make me forget age entirely. In the waves, I'm neither young nor old, but simply present. In the moment. The whole day after, I'm high on endorphins. If you can find a place like that (doesn't have to be riding waves), go for it.

The brain is harder than the body to satisfy. The damn thing keeps talking back to you, with way too many criticisms and critiques, and old stories. I tell myself to "shut the fuck up" quite regularly. But it's important to keep the brain exercised also. Talking to interesting people is really vital, I think. And it's also the biggest challenge. Retirement too often leads to isolation. I sometimes go whole days before realizing I haven't exchanged one word with another human being. It's not healthy.

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However, social media is not the answer. Facebook friends are not real friends. You need an actual person standing in front of you to have an actual conversation. Sometimes, you need to push out of the comfort zone, which, in truth, is not very comfortable at all, just habit. Classes are good to take or to offer. Right away, you'll be sitting with a dozen people who have similar interests. Conversations come easily. There's a lot of stuff that falls into the category of doing things out in the world just to be doing something. It's really nothing to be ashamed of; feeling awkward is not a valid excuse for staying homebound.

Don't forget casual conversations. Walk around the neighborhood. Stick your head into places you don't normally stick it. You know, there are lots of other lonely people around. Even a banal conversation is better than no conversation.

Anyway, physically and mentally, the trick is to stay engaged. Don't give into that comfy seat in front of the television—as tempting as it may be. That path leads only to further disengagement. A few hours couldn't hurt, though. Like they say, "All things in moderation, including moderation." Hey, we're still allowed to have fun, geezers or not. Maybe that's even the key to the whole deal: Have fun. Repeat: Have fun.

So, how to sum this all up? Afraid I'm not the man for that job. I'm still figuring all this retirement stuff out. I'm hanging in for now, and trying to enjoy my life and my friends and family. It can be hard, but, as in any transitional phrase, retirement can bring new understanding, and even a new sense of self. Now, I'm gonna go check the waves.


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