We briefly alluded to that thought in the column on what newspapers need to do to survive. But for some strange reason, in a Zen-like you teach best what you need to learn most moment, since committing that sentiment to print, I’ve been considering it much more seriously.
And the reason for expending that extra mental effort is, as an inveterate observer of those fascinating puzzles known as human beings, I’ve recently encountered a dynamic that seems to show that gettin’ there ain’t nearly all it’s cracked up to be. In this particular case, we’re talking about recently retired folks.
You see, I’ve been noticing that a funny thing happens to most people – and especially men – soon after they hit that retirement date. They become more miserable than ever.
They seem to wander aimlessly through a series of meaningless daily tasks unsure of what to do with themselves. Their wives, having raised a family and now used to running their own lives, really don’t want them around all the time. This abrupt shift can lead to a sense of emptiness that gets so bad, some men develop serious medical conditions, or even die, shortly after retiring.
Here’s what I believe is behind it.
Just as parents rarely notice their children’s day-to-day growth, most of us toil away at some sort of daily office or blue collar job with one eye on raising a family and the other on amassing enough cash to enable us to drift off into a comfortable retirement sunset. Thus, our vocation is really nothing more than a means to those two ends.
But a funny thing happens after 40 years of being “something.” Children grow up and move on and no matter how toxic your work environment might be, it does give your life meaning. Since that’s something we all desperately crave, we’ll start saying things like “I am a manager” or “I am a clerk” or “I am a welder” which, when you think about it, are highly defining statements.
Before we know it, we start to equate ourselves with what we do.
Not only that, but, as the workdays slowly pass, we never quite realize just how much those work relationships define us as well. Think about it! Most of us interact with our co-workers far more often than our wives, children or friends.
Before we know it, we can’t really relate to people who don’t share our daily experience – and that includes our families.
So, in what can only be called a massively ironic twist, when we do get to the “destination,” which can’t possibly live up to its promise of making us perfectly happy, after a few months of sitting around on our butts in semi-silence, we start to long for the journey again. We want to go back to work!
You hear the same phenomenon applied to troops returning from multiple combat tours in Afghanistan. That kind of, “I’m here for the greater good of my unit,” camaraderie gives their life real meaning. So after coming back to rush hour traffic where everybody wants to kill everybody else over a scant car lengths worth of space, their minds immediately drift back to the battlefield and they want to go back.
To distill this down into something more manageable, I firmly believe we humans get into all sorts of trouble when we attach our self-definition to something external like a job. And we tend to make that mistake when we perceive this existence to be some sort of destination and not the journey itself.
The problem is, putting off happiness is always a recipe for disaster. Not only does it become a habit that’s hard to break, but the damage we do to ourselves in the process is almost never worth the cost. That doesn’t mean you should simply go out and do your best to screw everyone else while you shoot for the hedonistic moon. There will always be sacrifices, bumps in the road and those dark nights of the soul.
But what it does mean is, if we realize we’re always a work in progress, that nothing external can ever truly define us, and that the meaning of life is to give our lives meaning, then it becomes far easier to “roll with the changes.”
When we recognize that the journey is the destination, we let go of the past, we realize the future hasn’t taken form yet, and we return to the eternal present, which is all we ever had in the first place.
Once again, I’ll leave you with some sage Sheryl Crow lyrics:
Everyday is a winding road
I get a little bit closer
Everyday is a faded sign
I get a little bit closer to feeling fine