Perspective: Retirement: Death of a Career with Guaranteed Afterlife
Photos, across the arc of a profession and a life:
(Left) 1967: Rigors of Residency in Boston.
If our retirement nest is filled with all eggs of solid gold, will they hatch happiness? King Midas, in a Greek story, wanted everything he touched to turn into solid gold until he turned his daughter into a lifeless golden statue. Those who do not remember this story will be condemned to repeat it, reminds the author, to all young and old.
The title of the article, with retirement and death being placed side-by-side, is enough to send a shudder down one’s spine. The common denominator is a fear of both, resulting in self-denial. “It happens to all mortals, but not me,” we think. So let us not deny the linking of the two, but start thinking about how to process the two. “To understand a problem is to escape its suffering,” said the famous Irish author Oscar Wilde.
Perhaps we identify ourselves too much with our professional lives. Our lives are generally evaluated by what we do for a living. “No job, no joy,” is often the adage that we live by. Our job becomes our main connection with the world. We are elated on landing our first job. Life usually flows fast thereafter. Milestones and chapters such as marriage, raising children, providing for their education, and ultimately seeing them start their careers, zoom by in what appears to be a flash. It is like a movie in fast motion. The plot of the movie may include serious illness or even the death of our parents–a happenstance that is regretted but not necessarily registered in depth. Meanwhile, the upward swing of our careers is punctuated by a windfall of financial and professional accolades. Little do we know at that time what lies ahead.
2005: Highest Teaching Award by Emory Medical School.
Over time, our lives begin to receive a series of jolts when some of our colleagues pass away, while others start retiring. We mutter in the face of a compelling truth, “I, too, will retire sometime and focus on enjoying my life and family.” But we never truly commit to this inevitability.
The voices around us don’t help either, as they keep reassuring us, “You look so young and energetic. You should not even think of retiring. This place will fall apart without you.” These comforting words conveniently soothe us and discourage us from choosing a retirement date.
Time ticks away while our busy lives are punctuated by knee surgery, back pain, coronary stents, and a few other common maladies that are not exactly life-threatening. A few more years of our humdrum or happening lives pass by until one day, to our utter bewilderment, we find that there is an active search underway for our replacement. Young men and women, beaming with energy, appear for interviews and assert how radically the existing system needs to be changed. They operate deftly with the most up- to-date technologies. They have no regard for our decades of hard work, toiling until the late hours of night to meet deadlines, and the crucifixion of endless weekends and limited vacations.
Next we are asked to evacuate our offices and hand over all the keys, leaving our computer to stare at us with a dark, unlit face. We feel stripped of our dignity. All taken away from us, we feel we are dead! Soon thereafter, we are politely and warmly escorted to our retirement party, where we are greeted by applause. Flowers and eulogy flow freely. We get an instinctive premonition that we are never going to see these people again, the same people with whom we share a ton of memories. “Is this my memorial service?” we think. “How depressing! However, why am I taking it so personally when it happens to everyone? If born, we die. If employed, we retire. But how can they do without me?”
Is there any silver lining to this dark cloud? Is there any life after retirement?
The question is profound, but it actually needed to be asked earlier when we started our first job. The answer was there at the time, but we failed to ask the question. Our concern originally was the postretirement package of financial benefits, to the exclusion of everything else. The real question to be asked was, “Will this money that is bringing me a good living also guarantee a good life? What checkpoints need to be on my agenda to ensure lasting fulfillment?”
Redefine a Successful Career
Nobody should deny the importance of a job that meets one’s financial needs. We may not be happy with money alone, but we can be pretty miserable without it. Additionally, if our job is commensurate with our talents, dreams, and ultimate fulfillment, we feel so fortunate. A combination of money and success, however, can be prophetically divine or deadly. What is powerful for good can be potential for evil. Money and success may mislead us to a path of insatiable, endless pursuit of these seductive goals, alluring us to workaholism, which demands larger and larger consumption while setting the standards of satisfaction at mercilessly increasing heights. The component of happiness itself can start becoming obscure and blurred.
Money and success carry further toxicity when we begin to chase the crooked shadow of accumulating wealth and fame ceaselessly. We have to learn to be successful and financially comfortable without holding onto either. Once our dreams are fulfilled, our next goal should be to help others fulfill theirs. After becoming a good leader, our responsibility is to create new leaders. The famous Shakespearean aphorism, “The old order changeth, giving place to new” should be modified to say supporting the new. Competing with members of our incoming generation is against the flow of life, much more so in this country, which relies upon a continuous inflow of new talent for its progress. After all, isn’t that exactly how we all flourished here?
At the same time, it is good to be mindful that no matter how important we are, we are not indispensable. “The cemetery is full of indispensable people,” said Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary of the United Nations. After its luminous shine during the day, the sun sets in the evening, hopefully making for an even more colorful and beautiful panorama.
2015: Post-retirement: Trekking River Kaveri in Coorg, India.
Fully Embrace Family, Children, and Grandchildren
If we wait until after retirement to ignite our family relationships, the pilot light might well be out by then. If no time is invested in the family, the dividends are expectedly absent, leaving only a residue of distant politeness. The job and the family both demand passion, productivity, dedication, dependability, creativity, commitment, and selflessness. Balance, therefore, is the key word that should be set like a “karmostat” skillfully and optimally synchronized. Only then can a retired life reap the harvest of fulfilled relationships and generate a thrill of its own. I have seen year after year, graduating students doting lovingly on their grandparents at the time of commencement—a well planned journey that reaches a happy end.
Harvest Hobbies While in the Full Swing of Work
It is so difficult to develop hobbies anew during the retirement period, when they are ironically needed the most. There are a number of options to choose from, whether it is travel, painting, swimming, or spiritual pursuit. Volunteer work is another hobby bringing a deep, internal satisfaction of its own. Such productive pastimes will prevent us from being pushed to the dark dungeon of loneliness. Loving and helping everyone, even by stretching ourselves, will bring enormously satisfying rewards.
Time May Be Ticking but So Are We!
If the world is a stage, we now have a reassigned role to play. We cannot waste our time resenting that we are no longer the center of attraction, nor can we keep gazing fearfully at the curtain lest it falls. We face a new challenge—a new opportunity to live life joyfully, productively, gracefully, and gratefully. My friend, a retired surgeon, told me he never realized until now how many birds were singing in his backyard! A well-spent retired life can leave a supportive and helpful memory for friends and family to cherish and follow. After all, since we handled the tide of time so well, let us now see how effective we are in its ebb.
Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but a tunneled vision cannot see it. Any journey should start with a vision, guided by reason. A thoughtful, wise person who uses these checkpoints to lasting fulfillment may find the real question to be, “Is retirement really the end, or is it just a new beginning?”
Bhagirath Majmudar recently retired after 45 years of service at Grady and Emory University Hospitals, from positions of professor of pathology and associate professor of obstetrics/gynecology. He is also a Hindu priest, poet, writer, playwright, and performer.
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