You might think questions like “Who am I?” and “What do I want out of life?” would have already been asked and answered by baby boomers like me. However, contemplating retirement can initiate revisiting a relentless loop of existential questions.
We are long past the first phase of life, childhood. Some of us have fond memories of this time in our lives. Attending school, being curious and exploring our world, learning about relationships, sharing time and experiences with family and friends filled each day.
The seeds of our future interests, romantic relationships, and our likes and dislikes are sown in this period, too. But childhood is also fertile ground for developing our insecurities, fears, foibles, and doubts. For some, childhood is a hellish experience filled with uncertainty, illness, alcoholic parents, divorce, and abuse. For others, childhood is a confusing mix of sunshine and shadows.
In the second phase of life, which for most of us starts when we leave the educational system, we may marry, start a career path, and have a family. Propelled through life by day-to-day demands, tasks, and activities we often forget to stand still, breathe, and check in with ourselves. Only when faced with difficult circumstances do we stop and ask ourselves questions about the meaning of our existence, what we want, and where we’re going. Life is a blur that goes by with ever increasing speed.
We whiz past our 30s, 40s and 50s and somewhere along the way we pass an invisible line where the world’s perception of us changes. In our minds we are still young and vibrant. The rest of the world no longer sees us that way. Somehow, seemingly without our knowledge or permission, we have gotten old.
A tale my friend Chuck related, which is included in my book Your Countdown to Retirement, captures how shocking this moment can be. While waiting for a table inside the entrance of a restaurant, a young girl surveyed him, walked over to him, and said cheerfully “Hello, old man!” Her words were crushing. For the first time, Chuck realized he was perceived by the world as “old”.
Piercing that denial can be a pivotal moment in our lives that leaves us anxiously anticipating the third and final phase of life, our post-employment years. Existential questions we may not have had time to answer in our earlier years, questions that simultaneously fascinate and frighten us, loom large. “Where did the time go?” “How much of it do I have left?” “What am I going to do with that time?” “What gives my life meaning?” “What happens when I die?” “How do I come to know God, or is there a God?” “Why am I here?” “Why is this happening to me?” “What’s next?”
But the third phase of life can be profoundly satisfying if we view it as an unprecedented opportunity to embrace a journey of inner and outer exploration. Revisiting and rediscovering what you like and don’t like provides the ability to make different choices based on current life circumstances, tastes, and interests. Things you may have previously rejected, like organized religion, prayer, meditation, reading, fitness, hobbies, volunteering or cooking, may now provide opportunities to learn, grow, build relationships, and enjoy the activity.
Contemplating your life and what you want to do with the rest of it can be life changing – like a giant mulligan, a do over, that allows you to make changes and do things differently. That, in and of itself, is an excellent reason to look forward to aging rather than dread it.