Bill Laramee: In the stillness of retirement

In the silence that comes after a busy career, reinvesting in life -- and in your life -- is an act of faith that produces hope, not despair, says a retired vice president of Berea College.

A friend and I were commiserating recently about the new world in which we find ourselves: the world of retirement. Within months after leaving the workplace last summer, we had both grown to dislike the very word itself. “Re-tired” is not the way we like to think of ourselves.

Well-meaning friends suggested other words. Like maybe “refired” or “reborn,” both of which have possibilities. Another offered “retread,” but all we could think of were recapped tire carcasses scattered across the interstate -- “alligators,” truckers call them.

All my friend and I know is that we still have good energy, ideas and a desire to do meaningful work. To us, “retired” has the ring of defeat and demoralization. Instead, we prefer to think of ourselves as “reinvested.” For us, retirement is not about leaving work but about reinvesting our energies in new ways with new priorities.

Whatever word you want to use, retirement is not without its benefits. It has been good not to have to go to the office every day. My wife and I have traveled, spent time with our children and grandchildren, visited my parents, and were able to be present for the birth of our fifth grandchild. I’ve completed long-postponed household repairs, read books, written letters and articles. I have counseled colleagues about their careers, taught a college course, and sometimes just paused a moment and chatted with friends and strangers on the street and in the coffee shop.

Throughout it all, I have been blessed to have the love of a spouse who generously and patiently shares spaces and times that were mostly hers alone for many years. It’s a familiar punch line, but a true one: “I agreed to be with him in sickness and health, but not to have lunch with him every day.”

But my days are clearly different than before. As a senior executive, the vice president for alumni and college relations at Berea College, I faced high expectations and high-level accountability -- from myself and others -- every day. I spent countless hours planning and executing and was regularly evaluated on my efforts.

For many years, my work life, like that of many senior-level administrators, was “24/7.” I was never really off duty. Even on vacation, I would usually take time out from my time off to make a quick donor visit, check the office email and phone calls, resolve problems back at the office and review important documents.

I loved the variety each workday brought, the interruptions and the opportunities to discover new ideas. Work gave my life structure and unity. In retirement, the good news is that there is little or no structure. But that is also the bad news. In the absence of structure, I can sometimes lose a good part of the day trying to decide what to do. That is one reality that I was not prepared for.

But after all those years of busyness, what I really wasn’t prepared for was the stillness of retirement.

When your life is shaped primarily by the dictates and demands of work, you never really develop the art of being still. No wonder many executives feel lost and disoriented when they close the office door for the last time.

For me, learning to be still, understanding anew what stillness even means, has been one of the central challenges of this first year of retirement. Initially a burden, it has become a gift. In the stillness, I eventually realized that my desire for accountability, my need to feel that my daily work matters, was really about something else: ego.

In his book about Thomas Merton, “Merton’s Palace of Nowhere,” James Finley notes how Merton believed that in the dark night of faith, our ego-self stumbles all over itself, lost to all that was reassuring and familiar.

That is what retirement can be like for a once-busy executive. It is a test of faith -- a darkness and a stumbling in which you try to find the familiar once again. By the very nature of their work, senior leaders tend to put themselves at the center of their universe. The challenge in retirement is to find new meaning, hopefully in ways that are not so ego-bound. The challenge is to reclaim the familiar but use it in new ways.

For me, the greatest joy in work -- the thing that is for me most familiar -- was relationships. I loved being with people and sharing moments of hope, opportunity and vulnerability. As a leader, I valued helping people grow and capturing “teachable moments.”

Once I understood that about myself, I realized that even in retirement I could still find ways to have meaningful relationships with others. I still reach out to and mentor younger colleagues. I serve as a trustee at Warren Wilson College, which allows me to share my experience and to still be “in the game.” I continue to find new ways to use my skills in other arenas.

I also have learned to be comfortable with and even to embrace the silence. I have spent days on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Merton once lived. While there recently, reflecting on and writing about retirement -- indeed, writing this essay -- I remembered Henri Nouwen’s admonition to “live larger,” and in those words I found the familiar.

That is what my friend and I were feeling. We want to live large again, but in a different way than before. Living larger, I now realize, does not mean accumulating more or indulging in hobbies.

Living larger is not about scale but about focus, which is at the heart of the stillness that is my new normal. The retirees I most admire, the ones I have either read about or met, lived larger, but in smaller ways. They did not focus on proving themselves but rather shared themselves, doing good works with and for others. They shifted from a lifetime of acquiring goods and power to giving them away.

Retirement is the time to rediscover your center -- who you are and what is important to you. It is a time of waiting for new doors to open.

So my friend and I are going with “reinvesting” as our word for retirement. In the silence that comes after a busy career, reinvesting in life -- and in your life -- is an act of faith that produces hope, not despair.

In retirement, in reinvestment, we are called, as Wendell Berry would say, to “practice resurrection.” We are called to make a new life where we walk a little more gently on the earth, while still trying to make a difference.

Living larger in smaller ways is a paradox. And as Parker Palmer wrote, “The promise of paradox is the promise that apparent opposites … can cohere in our lives, the promise that if we replace either-or with both-and, our lives will become larger and more filled with light.”

I’m still starting out on this journey. I’m told it might be a few years before I have real clarity.

But let there be light.