Questions to Ask Yourself About Retirement: Living in a Smaller World

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How can you survive—and thrive—in the sometimes painful transition to the “smaller world” of retirement?

Many of the women and men we interviewed for the book Shaping a Life of Significance for Retirement* felt they were entering a smaller world of influence, authority, or recognition in going from full-time work or ministry to whatever followed. Those in positions of leadership felt the loss of authority most acutely. Teachers and college professors lamented the loss of influence in the lives of others in retirement. Some of the retired pastors we interviewed expressed a sense of anonymity in going from a world in which they received a lot of recognition to one in which they felt almost invisible. While sometimes these retirees felt relief from the pressure of living in the fishbowl, they also registered feelings of sadness and lack of purpose or direction.

First of all, it helps to know that generally the intensity of these feelings subsides within a year or less. That does not mean they go away; there will still be moments when a sharp pang of loss or regret occurs. Pastors who are used to shaping the spiritual lives of others, being in the middle of the muddle of organizational life, and offering opinions on key issues may miss the role deeply. On the other hand, they do not miss the tedious and seemingly endless meetings, the denominational demands, and the feeling of dread for all that is never finished. Bringing both the good and the uncomfortable memories to mind can bring a sense of perspective about this work.

When low feelings come, as they will because you’ve invested so much of yourself in the ministry, consider these moments as an invitation to understand how God might be calling you today in this “third phase” of life. In your baptism you were claimed as a beloved child of God; you were named one of the chosen; your life was celebrated as God’s gift to the world. Retirement does not diminish the truth of the baptismal covenant!

The Bible offers numerous examples of individuals who went from a larger to a smaller world of influence, authority, recognition, or status. Surprisingly enough, it’s often in this smaller world that God speaks most clearly. In your retirement you may hear God speak to you with greater clarity and understanding.

Audio Discussion

R. Jack Hansen, one of the authors of this article, discusses how the world can seem "smaller" to retirees (Wav file).

The Gospel of Luke begins with the widest possible world before us: the Roman Empire with all its magnificence. Yet very quickly the spotlight moves from Caesar to a poor couple making their way to Bethlehem. The smaller world is God’s stage. The child is recognized not by Jewish leaders or political authorities but by two elderly worshippers in the temple, Simeon and Anna. Later in this same Gospel we hear about a Roman centurion whose servant is ill. Again the focus goes from worldly might to where the real action is: Jesus’ healing love. There are many stories in the Bible like these; often it’s on the sidelines where God seems to be at work.

As we move into the smaller world of retirement, facing feelings of loss, how can we be attentive and open to what God might want us to see during this time of transition? To use another biblical example, if Moses had spent all of his time pining away about the good old days in Pharaoh’s house, he may have missed the burning bush. How can we be alert to the burning bushes God wants to show us?

In her excellent book How Can I Let Go If I Don’t Know I’m Holding On?** Linda Douty provides helpful insights on both the “why” and the “how” of letting go. Of particular relevance is her discussion of letting go of roles. These roles are necessary and legitimate in life, but we must leave these behind in order to “use the gifts we have been given, to pursue the passionate interests that compel us, to be all that we are created to be” in this new phase of life.

What does the spiritual practice of letting go look like?

  • Start by making a list of your losses. That may seem simple, but probe a little deeper. For example, you miss having to write the newsletter and even those deadlines you used to dread. What else do you miss? You miss working on the project with Anita, who always scowled at you when you were late. You miss the satisfaction of serving on a district committee. What else do you miss? You miss the feeling that you’ve worked on something important, or maybe a feeling of accomplishment. Keep adding to your list.
  • The second important step in letting go is feeling the pain of the loss. Some of us have trained ourselves to stay away from our feelings. Or we’ve been trained to focus on how others are feeling. As we slow down, our own feelings surface. We may become uncomfortable. It’s tempting to throw ourselves into busy volunteer work or to take a part-time pastorate to avoid these feelings. Take time and let the feelings come. You’ve worked a long time, so take time to unpack from all those years!
  • Next, ask God to help you resolve your feelings. If you are holding anger or resentment, ask God to help you begin the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness takes time. You may want to write out your feelings, directed at the person or situation that caused your hurt. Rather than send it, set it aside for a while; or burn it, expressing your desire to let these feelings go. You may want to write a prayer or a letter to God; God knows what feelings of betrayal are like!
  • Finally, act out your letting go with some kind of ritual or gesture. A helpful gesture might be standing and holding your hands close to your chest like you’re holding a bird. Now open your hands and raise your arms to the sky like you’re letting the bird go. Do this several times until you have some feeling of release. Letting go can help you feel lighter. It is a journey of remembering and a journey of moving on to the next good thing in life. Or, paraphrasing the words from a devotional by Joretta Marshall***, when you are on what seems to be a set of dead ends and winding paths, being open to the surprises of God’s Spirit can move you from lostness to “a highway of grace.”

*Shaping a Life of Significance for Retirement by R. Jack Hansen and Jerry P. Haas (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010).

**How Can I Let Go If I Don’t Know I’m Holding On?: Setting Our Souls Free by Linda Douty (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2005).

***The Upper Room Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions 2010 Edited by Rita Collett (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010) pg. 354.

©Jerry P. Haas and R. Jack Hansen, 2012

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