[Key Words: age, retirement, transitions, four dimensions, time, finitude]
[This is the first of a series of articles I intend to write regarding various transitions we face in our lives. Besides Age & Retirement, other transitions include such experiences as marriage/divorce, changing/losing jobs, entering/exiting the job market for the first time, and then facing our own finitude, be it through the death of a loved one, or staring in the face of our remaining years. I will discuss how an existential approach to life can address transitions in living.]
Introduction: Transitions in the Flow of Life
At 65 years old, I’m beginning to understand the full force of what it means when people say, “Life is about transitions.” Fortunately, or unfortunately (perhaps both), I’m also beginning to understand what people mean when they talk about how they now realize what lessons for living they have missed along the way. And finally, rather than getting stuck on the fact that I have missed lessons along life’s path, I’m beginning to understand the potency of the statement, “Time starts now.” I wish it hadn’t taken me so many years to realize some of the things I will discuss in this article, but I have a feeling that such time-learned lessons are part of living. So it has taken me years to realize some things. To accept such facts rather than deny them is another important lesson for living.
We all face transitions in life and continual opportunities to learn lessons about living, particularly lessons about pursuing and carving out the kind of life we desire for ourselves. As a counselor, I have come to believe that the thrust of counseling is about helping people come to grips with who they are, determining how they want to live, and finding ways to navigate the many transitions they face in life, learning lessons and making meaning of all these experiences along the way. In short, I view counseling as a journey with clients as they figure out for themselves how to achieve a fulfilling life.
Transitions in our lives come about for a variety of reasons. We may choose them, or they may be thrust upon us through events out of our control. Even when we choose them, we may be thrown headlong into experiences we didn’t anticipate. How we make sense of these transitions and imbue them with meaning contribute to how well we will navigate them and work through them. These experiences represent the many struggles of living. Sometimes they are minor struggles; other times they are major ones. Without intending to delineate an objective list of transitions, I want to discuss how an existential approach to counseling can enable clients to work through some of the recurring transitions that people tend to encounter and bring into the counseling room. . This first article of an intended series that I have entitled, Transitions, focuses on age and retirement.
Exploring the Meaning of Age and Retirement
We value work in our culture. At a core level, many people view career as a major part of their identity. “I’m an accountant . . . a teacher . . . a doctor . . . etc,” are statements we hear constantly, and ones we have most likely said about ourselves to others. Productivity is a core value associated with work and career. [Although most of us would not distinguish work from career, for some people work is a way to get by and pay bills while they pursue other things in life more important to them. Their career may entail fulfilling activities for which they do not get paid.) No one likes to believe or feel on some level that he or she is unproductive. Moreover, many of us pursue a career in order to contribute , make a difference, or establish some kind of legacy. For others, work is a means to the end of pursuing more fulfilling experiences. Whatever the role work and career fulfill for us, when we face that time when we will no longer be working and producing as we have been, we cannot help but encounter a major transition in our lives. Some people navigate this transition rather seamlessly, having planned well along the way. Other people find that retirement and growing older is an event that they never saw as being just around the corner. They turn one of those many perceived endless corners of life, and there it is: I’m 65 years old.
What the hell happens to time? Time is a major theme in existential thought. What have I done with my time? How much time do I have left? Why is it that I never seem to have enough time? These are common questions or thoughts that people have about the ominous presence of time. We are not only ensconced in space, but we are embedded in time as well. Consequently, individuals enter counseling to deal with the struggle of what this transition will mean for them. They may state their struggle in terms of, “If I’m not a productive person, then what good am I?” Or they may ponder the notion, “Since I’ve been working all these years, I have no idea what I’m going to do with my time now.”
Age, Retirement, and the Four Dimensions of Existential Psychotherapy
The experience of growing older and retiring from work can be conceptualized along all four dimensions of existential therapy, as delineated by Emmy van Deurzen. In the physical realm, age takes a toll on us in that we cannot do the things we used to do. At 65, I can vouch for that. Those pick-up touch football games ceased many years ago. Although I can still work a twelve-to-fourteen hour day, it takes much more out of me than it used to. I have always had a love for driving. I would drive to other cities in other states just to visit them, taking in a twelve to thirteen hour driving day. I no longer can do that, nor can I any longer go on four hours of sleep and get up and face the day full of energy. Moreover, as our fall and winter years approach, we will most likely face some health concerns. So the physical realm definitely raises its unwanted head as we age. Existential therapy helps people come to grips with this physical reality.
In the social arena, age and retirement impact us no less than in the physical dimension. Relationships change; some relationships, such as co-worker relations, might end altogether. Spending more time at home throws spouses or significant others into a different daily routine. Being together more hours of the day presents a transition that people must learn to navigate. If one member of a couple continues to work, that individual may have to deal with the emotional fallout experienced by the retired loved one. Tighter budgets mean that people may not be able to do all the activities they had previously enjoyed. Finances (another issue altogether, no matter what people’s age happens to be) are a constant point of concern and can threaten a family’s wellbeing during later years. Families change, friendships change, activities change, – life altogether changes as people age and retire from their pursued work or careers.
The arena of the personal dimension is the one that most likely takes the hardest hit during this transition. As I stated previously, people in our culture attach meaning, purpose, value, and personal fulfillment to their work or career. All of us have heard that damning phrase, out to pasture. No one likes or agrees that such an epitaph should, like an albatross, be hung around anyone’s neck who has reached retirement. The phrase is an insult. Nonetheless, on a personal level, many of us struggle with what our retirement years mean. And given the cultural value of work, we can’t help but question our personal value if we are no longer producing. Value, identity, and personal meaning can take a severe blow during this transition if we accept as paramount the cultural value placed on youth and productivity.
The spiritual dimension speaks more directly to meaning making, and trying to make sense of our lives as we approach retirement is a meaning-making activity. Indeed, much of therapy may revolve around the struggle of how clients will interpret this time of their lives. Many people, as in all areas of their lives, will bring their religious and/or spiritual values to bear on this experience to help them navigate it. Through counseling, clients can also draw on their spiritual beliefs to help them find strength during this time of their lives. They may, in fact, explore the question: How can I make this transition a time of opportunity rather than one of restricted living? Although age and retirement may mean an end to certain experiences, there is no reason that this transition should mean simply an end. People can view this time of life as a path to explore rather than an existence that has corralled them.
Moreover, this timeframe for our existence can be a fruitful time for people to take stock and reflect on their lives, the many lessons they have learned along the way, and how even the ones they missed have served them somehow. Such reflection may involve some pain and disappointment, but, as well, it can also bring about joy and fulfillment. Taking stock of our lives is a major theme in existential therapy. At times I personally experience the thought that I would like to go back to my younger years, knowing what I know now. Not only does such a fantasy rob life of its learning, but it also cheats life, as well, of living. Such a dream speaks to the age old desire to capture lost time, learning lessons at a time we would have preferred to learn them, or, even worse, wanting a life where there is no struggle, which is the very experience that generates our learning and personal growth. Such a desire misses the point that time starts now. The Christian mystic, Thomas A’ Kempis, in his renowned work, The Imitation of Christ, wisely stated, “When you think of those things you would have done earlier in life but didn’t do them, do them now.” Such an understanding of living does not mean that we do not have a past that impacts us. But it does mean that we can waste the remaining time we do have by thinking that somehow we can alter our past, or even worse, pining over how we wish our past would have been different.
Age, Retirement and the Specter of Death
And finally, coming to grips with this time of life brings us to the theme that is ever hauntingly present in our existence. Aging and diminishing capacities mean that we are approaching that mysterious experience that poses many questions but few answers. We are all going to die. And although this theme cuts across the various dimensions of existence, we tend to grapple with it along personal and spiritual means. At 65 years of age, and given the thrown-ness of my humanity, family history, and genetics, I realize that more than three-quarters of my life is done. This is not a transition that I relish to contemplate. Yet, though we would rather avoid the subject altogether, life calls on us to reflect on such realities. Paraphrasing the Logotherapist, Viktor Frankl, what matters is not what we demand of life, but what life demands of us. How do we want to approach these final years? Do we quail under the weight of our destinies? Or do we continue to live fully to the finish? These challenges, questions, and struggles are ones we face ourselves, and as therapists, we can sit with our clients as they face them as well.
There are many other ways to view and navigate the transition of age and retirement. First, who says one MUST retire? Some people may choose to work until they finish. Nor does retirement have to mean that productivity ceases. There are a multitude of ways to be productive in addition to one’s career. Moreover, there are a multitude of ways to understand productivity. As difficult as it may seem, a conversation about this transition is not merely for people approaching retirement age. Talking about this transition to younger people can help them begin to think about how they want to enter their autumn years. Although nothing can be perfectly predicted and planned for, there is a place for thinking about one’s latter years earlier in life. That is one of those lessons of life I wish I had learned at an earlier age. Yet at the same time, to excessively ruminate about such things can freeze people up rather than propelling them to live. How we come to grips with our final destiny can either weigh us down or enliven us. More importantly, the thought of coming to grips with our humanity and its finitude should free us to live NOW. To pine away and constantly commiserate on the fact that we’re going to die equates to a waste of time and living.
Age and retirement represent one of the many types of transitions that individuals face in life. People can engage a contemplative and reflective approach to counseling, such as an existential approach, to help them navigate this transition in more fulfilling ways. There are no guarantees that all people will face this transition in a healthy and fulfilling manner. But the opportunity for them to do so is there if they choose to explore and leave open the many options by which people can embrace life. Whether or not they retire from their career, people can choose to push on, the best way they can, to a fulfilling finish.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/September 14, 2013
PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING: Transitions