July 1st, 2015

Taking the next step

I find it hard to believe that it has been a full year since I wrote about “The Retirement Readiness Test,” a three-day weekend rehearsal of a retired psychologist’s schedule that led me to conclude that I wasn’t ready. I find this hard to believe because when this column appears on July 1, I will have been retired for a little more than two weeks. Well, sort of.  I will be retired from my full time position of 39 years but I will still be doing some part-time work in psychology.

In the past year, my thinking about retirement has evolved from considerations about how I would use the extra time to the realization that, at a certain age, we stand on the threshold of a new developmental stage with challenges every bit as important as the ones we faced at earlier periods in life.

It may be difficult to admit that we’re there because the illusion of having endless time is not easily dispelled. Time will pass whether or not we use it to address our new challenges in a deliberate way and, as I see it, the longer we wait, the fewer resources we will have to accomplish the tasks before us.

After months of equivocating about retirement, in the end it was this developmental perspective that guided my decision. I like to tell people that it took me 30 minutes to fill out my retirement papers, three weeks to address the envelope and another month to put it in the mail.

When I started to share my decision with co-workers, people asked if I was excited (not especially), if I had booked a major trip (Does Philadelphia count?) or if I had started my bucket list (already?).

What I had done was to give plenty of thought to the challenges ahead – finding new sources of meaning, ways to avoid isolation and activities that would engage me as fully as my work had over these many years. Yet weren’t all of these the consequences of retirement and, as such, things that didn’t have to be faced at all if I simply carried on as usual?

As I considered this question, I turned to Erik Erikson’s description of the eight stages of man in his book, “Childhood and Society,” and read once again what he had to say about the eighth stage that culminates in the development of a favorable ratio of integrity to despair.

Integrity, Erikson tells us, is the crowning achievement of a life well lived.  “It is the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions.”  The opposite of integrity is despair, “signified by the fear of death: the one and only life cycle is not accepted as the ultimate of life.”

Reading these words in the old copy of Erikson’s book that I retrieved from the basement, I noticed that the phrases the original owner underlined were precisely the ones that I remembered from the graduate school class where I had first learned about these ideas.

In a house where books, old and new, come and go with each trip to the town recycling center, this one could have come from anywhere. A quick inspection of the inside covers where I had written my name in an earlier version of my essentially unchanged penmanship told me this one had been mine from the beginning.

The price stamped on the front cover, $2.95, was a good clue about how many years had passed since then. There had been more than enough time to live through Erikson’s first seven stages and now it was high time to start working on number eight.

Integrity is wholeness. How do you stitch together a life and a career from its many disparate elements to make something whole? Joan Chittister, a contemporary spiritual writer, in her book, “The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully,” argues that the purpose and the challenge of our later years is to assimilate what we have learned in earlier periods and to use that knowledge to build a new life in which we can become more fully alive than ever.

She writes of the burdens and blessings of specific feelings, attitudes, and physical changes that come with advancing years, challenging the reader to do the hard and necessary work of using this time well. Regret, meaning, fear, joy, solitude, forgiveness, all of these experiences and many more are waiting around every corner of the calendar, waiting to crush us with the burden of their weight or lift us up to new vistas of possibility.

With all of this work ahead of me, it was time for a well-being check, so I ran through the 20 items of the Beck Hopelessness Scale, which years of practice had implanted solidly in my mind.

I have great faith in the future, true or false?  Hmm, this wasn’t going to be easy. My past experiences have prepared me well for the future, true or false? Yes, that’s a definite true. This alone, I realized, is cause for celebration and optimism about the road ahead. My past experiences have served me well and I owe those experiences to the many wonderful people who have enriched my life – family, friends, teachers, mentors, colleagues, patients, and students. In the face of such abundance, the only possible response is gratitude and that may just be the thread that pulls everything together to make life whole.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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