After a long working life, I took a nap the other day. It wasn’t a day off or a weekend or a vacation. It was a midweek, I’m-sleepy-now afternoon nap. That’s retirement.
According to the Social Security Administration, I’ve been employed for 50 years. That means getting paid by an employer who determined what hours I worked and what work I did. Somebody else decided where I worked, what equipment I could use, what my wages were, and whether my work was good enough. Now that’s over and I’m on my own.
Retirement turns out to be a matter of complex and, for me, unexpected logistics. These logistical problems come from the new questions that retirement asks.
Whatever workplace you had must be transformed, mainly by removing all of your stuff. Whether it’s a workbench or studio or desk or office, that throws a new decision at you: where should this work stuff go? Maybe it’s work-family stuff, like photos. They’re not so easy to deal with. Bring them home and put them where? Find new places or move the stuff on the walls now. What about the varied tools of your trade, books or screwdrivers or files or pens? Why save them when they will probably not be used again? But how hard it is to get rid of them.
Those are minor issues compared to the major life choices that retirement brings. Where should I live? Retirement doesn’t mean that you move your home base, but it does free you from needing to show up at work every day except for occasional vacations. Suddenly you can go visiting for weeks at a time (if they’ll have you), take long trips, or enjoy a family property far away. If you go away for more than a week, what do you do with your pets? your mail? your bills? For each new opportunity that retirement provides, along come new logistical issues to be faced.
Those are examples of how the end of working, meaning paid employment, changes everything. Most people will receive Social Security benefits for which we have been paying our entire working lives. Medicare will now become a central element of health insurance. Both require an application and some key decisions. When should benefits begin? Is Medicare sufficient or should supplemental insurance be purchased? Which plan is best?
Each of these questions involves complex decisions based on guesswork: how healthy am I? how long will I live? do I need long-term care insurance? how much health insurance can I afford?
These are just a sample of the logistical decisions which seem to suddenly come up at the moment of retirement. They take time and effort to work out. But I think another set of decisions is even more important and more difficult. Retirement brings up uncomfortable emotional and psychological uncertainties, because it is such a major life change.
What about naps? I have found it hard to grasp what it means that I no longer have to accomplish work every day. Behavior that meant laziness and avoidance, like sleeping late or taking a nap, now mean something else, because there is much less pressure to accomplish something. So why get up in the morning? We don’t have to confront life’s ultimate question of purpose to realize that a smaller question will come up every morning: what is my purpose today? There certainly are a lot of things that I could do that are interesting and fun. But reading the newspaper, digging in the garden, or going out for coffee don’t accomplish anything that anyone else cares about. Nothing moves forward. Fun is not an easy substitute for work when we have been engaged by work for half a century.
Work accomplishes things for other people. That’s why they pay us. Suddenly we can focus on ourselves. The people who wanted our work don’t want it any more. Others have taken our places, and we’re left to amuse ourselves.
I’m not complaining. The lack of deadlines, the absence of pressure to accomplish anything in particular today, is a wonderful liberation. I can do anything I want, or nothing at all. But the shift in perspective is not easy to negotiate.
Maybe I should just take a nap.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 19, 2016