Adam Fisher: If work defines us, what’s next?
NORTHAMPTON — At the easiest and most graspable level, when one-third of your life has been devoted to work, then one-third of your life is suddenly left wide-open — and perhaps frighteningly free — in retirement.
I distrust news articles in which the retiring police chief or councilman says he plans to “travel” or “spend more time with my family” or “devote more energy to my hobbies.” It may be true in one sense, but in another sense, it is questionable whether those activities will meet the need for “meaning” or “satisfaction” — the defined meaning and satisfaction and definition found in work.
I cannot speak for anyone else in the matter of retirement. It is a personal matter that does not take much comfort in the nostrums of others. There is no one-size-fits-all good news. There is no single all-you-have-to-do-is ... prescription. Everyone just has to gut it out.
When I retired at 69 in 2009 from the newspaper I worked at, I waited a while and then took what little was left of my 401k after Wall Street got finished looting it and went to see Bill, a money manager. I was not very good with or interested in money and needed the help.
And it was in the course of talking things over that Bill asked me idly, “How long have you been retired?” I told him it had been about nine months. “Oh well,” he said with a magical understanding in his voice, “you haven’t gotten your feet under you yet. That always takes a year or two.”
And I felt an enormous relief. It was, apparently, as common as dishwater to feel a sense of uncertainty and loss and floundering — the stuff that seemed to lurk just beneath the surface of getting up in the morning and not going to work. It was nice to think others had similar unspoken concerns. It didn’t solve or erase those concerns, but misery loves company and I was happy to have some company.
It took a little while for another recognition to kick in: Not just was I not producing what the newspaper had asked me to produce, but my own little-acknowledged assumptions about that work were under siege. Work had been a part of my definition of myself and without the work ... well, how much of that definition had been lost and what could I do to restore a sense of definition?
This turned into a multi-part question. If one definition (work) relied on something outside myself and if it could be so easily taken away, then how reliable were any of my other definitions and touchstones in life? This is a spooky question, assuming anyone is willing to ask it. Maybe it’s a spooky question even if anyone is not willing to ask it.
Whatever the approach, retirement put the question on my plate and caused me to reflect, not always with pleasure, on the assumptions that had helped bring me this far ... work, marriage, three kids, an interest in spiritual endeavor, a love of stories ... and a host of other matters, little and large.
How honestly defining and important were those definitions? What did my life look like when I took off the clothes of definition and meaning that were certified by others? Was there anything left?
There were times when I felt decidedly and uncomfortably “bare nekkid.” Unprotected.
But a little at a time, the dime began to drop: Everyone is always “bare nekkid” under whatever clothes they have chosen to wear. This is as true metaphorically as it is literally. Like a dandelion in an otherwise unblemished backyard lawn, “bare nekkid” is not good or bad — it’s just a dandelion that allows itself, without complaint, to be defined by any and all onlookers. Are those onlookers right or wrong? Either way, the dandelion is still just a dandelion.
These days, many of the old definitions have been retired. The suit-and-tie importance I once gave them strike me as possible but not imperative. The Miracle Glue of definition that once allowed me to look with presumptuous confidence in the bathroom mirror has dissolved for the most part.
What’s the matter with a dandelion?
For my money, everyone is retiring all the time. Whether they notice it or not is up to them. What was a-moment-ago has retired and what-is-now blooms ... over and over again.
Being a dandelion is not half bad. Some nitwit is bound to reach for the weed killer, but that’s the way the world goes around.
In the meantime, I figure my job is simply to bloom.
Adam Fisher of Northampton is the author of “Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice” and blogs at