When my former career came to an end, retirement’s opportunities seemed well-defined. I was ready for whatever ”refirement” was supposedly all about. A small problem still stares at me, though: A vaguely empty space deep inside. My former identity—filled with role expectations, prescribed routines, well-known relationships and largely predictable cause-and-effect sequences—was no longer available. My hope was to fill this new self—few role burdens, ample free time, and many unexplored horizons—with meaningful activity and important goals. But meaning and purpose still seemed elusive.
Two friends illustrate two facets of this phenomenon. One is a recently retired teacher, whose life is filled with a stimulating schedule of pleasant tasks. The other is a frail elderly person, residing in an assisted living facility, who can’t find satisfying answers to the question, “What good is it that I’m still alive?”
The former teacher volunteers extensively, but recognizes a spiritual hole when it comes to having a life purpose that matches the fullness of teaching. The nonagenarian isn’t looking for usefulness any more, and a vexing question—about the worth of a seemingly empty life—never goes away. In one case, the searching seems frustrating and never-ending. In the other, the flame of usefulness appears to have gone out. Memories are long gone of a time when lifework was vibrant, incisive and fulfilling. The hole may still be there, but now it has a different name.
After ten years of retirement, I sometimes still wonder about regaining the sense of calling, vocation or lifework that filled my spirit when I was a working guy. I volunteer at a comfortable level. I pursue new interests and double down on reading and journaling. All these satisfy me, each in its own way. But volunteering can expand to fill every moment with what can feel like empty-calorie purpose. Some of my new interests can be only momentary experiments. My reading can circle around the same subjects and my journaling can get whiney or vanilla-flavored.
I think my spirit has landed in a more-settled place recently, a way of thinking that can be encapsulated by two aphorisms about life-purpose at this age: “Holes can be filled with smaller stones,” and “a satisfying life is built out of satisfying relationships.”
Holes can be filled with smaller stones.
Realistically, I don’t think I would be pleasingly productive if I took on a larger role again—something on the order of my end-of-career professional work. I’m fairly certain I would not want to deal with the large-rock responsibilities or difficulties that come with full-bore purpose. I am fascinated, though, with hole-filling that looks something like the so-called gig-economy: Attaching myself intensively to small-scope, shorter-lived projects, events or causes. Applying my still-useful assets to each of them for a specified period of time, and then moving on to others.
A satisfying life is built out of satisfying relationships.
I’ve also come to see that my life purpose can now be anchored in mutually beneficial relationships. Spouse, family and friends certainly, but beyond that as well—to the small number of individuals with whom I correspond, grant and receive favors, discover wisdom and explore new ideas. Some of these relationships are long-standing, but a significant number have arisen since I’ve retired. Building up, strengthening, encouraging, counselling and challenging people whose purposed lives bend towards God’s purposes.
I recognize that the time may come when I ask the same question as my frail elderly friend. But I think that my answer then will be the same as now: investing time, energy and spirit deeply in the lives of other people.
How about you? Have you found or filled holes like this? Do you think it’s easier or harder to find purpose in retirement? And at whatever stage in life you’re at, what sorts of purpose fill your life? Your thoughts?
I hope that our purpose-seeking will continue, that the purpose-holes will be filled….
To subscribe, go to the upper right hand corner of the top banner and click on the three parallel lines. Scroll down to the subscription form and enter your information.)