I never expected to live beyond the age of 50. Strange as that sounds, I came to accept that death would catch up to me by that time. Insurance would take care of my family and I would be gone.
There was sound reasoning for this unusual thought. In those days I was traveling the world to report on humanitarian disasters—famine, armed conflict, natural disasters—for Church World Service and the National Council of Churches, USA.
I was chasing death around the world.
Not that these organizations put me in unsafe situations. They didn’t. But great tragedies are by nature uncontrolled. Things happen.
A team I was heading was told to leave Somalia or our compound would be bombed. A rival warlord didn’t want us in town. We negotiated to no avail. But we stayed and the bombing never happened, although we did have to leave a few days later under cover of darkness.
Somalia had just slipped into anarchy, a condition that it’s still trapped in.
I was in a Soviet-made passenger jet once that landed on a rain-filled runway in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It hydroplaned, sliding sideways and throwing us around like bowling pins. I thought my time had come. But the wheels grabbed and we straightened and came to a safe stop.
After I lived past the age of demise, I got depressed for lack of longer term planning. I’ve since learned this is not as unusual as I thought. Others tell me they have had similar thoughts.
And after I figured out that I had to get on with it, I moved beyond depression to the next step in my working life.
I tell you this, because I reached the age of mandatory retirement for my current position this year and I was forced to accept it.
In fairness, I requested to leave a few weeks earlier than planned for various reasons and I’m grateful this was allowed.
But the rule itself is an arbitrary holdover from the past. Retirement is being re-defined. The old concept of sitting on the beach all day lolling in the sun, or playing golf is looking like an anachronism for a lot of people. But stereotypes die hard.
A young man who doesn’t know me well told me I looked so much younger and relaxed after my planned retirement was announced. If I looked younger and relaxed it wasn’t for the reason he assumed.
Those who know me know I don’t embrace rules with a loving caress. I’m offended when anyone tells me what to do, even if it’s a doctor who’s telling me for my own good! But I abide most of them. This one is inescapable.
I understand that some people enthusiastically embrace retirement, or at least they embrace doing their own thing on their own time without the constraints of workplace rules. They take retirement as soon as possible.
I resist the rule and I resist the stereotype. In her book on her retirement Mary Lloyd writes of those of us who have reached this age. She says, “We’re stereotyped as out of shape, in need of huge amounts of medical attention, and focused on our grandchildren and finding the right retirement community.
…We need to see the truth—that when you leave, you may have as much of your life to live as you spent in the workforce.
…There’s so much life left in us when we reach this point. There’s so much to gain by claiming it. If we live our lives authentically after we ‘retire,’ we will be healthier physically, emotionally, spiritually. But, more importantly, we will be on fire with life.
…We need to change the way we undertake this transition. Our assumptions and expectations of the years after we retire need to change—individually and as a society. Those of us who have gotten that far, need to stand up and say confidently, ‘No, that’s not me at all.’ And then go out and be who we really are.”
Now, still on fire with life, I have the opportunity to respectfully lay aside the Book of Discipline, the law book of the church that requires mandatory retirement, and say, “No, that’s not me at all.” And then I will go out and be who I really am.
There are still many roads to ride, many words to write, many photographs to take, many human needs to be addressed, much injustice to confront, and much more to learn. There is a future to be grasped.
Most importantly, there is a life to be lived authentically.
And by the way. I’m not retiring. The rule says so. I say, to hell with the rule.
A postscript: According to Age Wave research more than half of the Boomers who are turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 a day view retirement as a time to re-set, not as the occasion for winding down. Colleges and Universities are beginning to recognize this age group as a potential new market made up of those pursuing “capstone” careers.