Retirement and the Return to Wonder
—an excerpt from The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul
In Earnest Hemingway’s novel, Old Man and the Sea, a weather-beaten old man in a torn, sweaty shirt, with rough hands, drags his small boat out to sea, stepping off white sands into turquoise waters. Surrounded by other boats, each with two men chatting, he drifts off alone.
As the sun sets, he drifts farther out to sea, mumbling to himself. “Eighty-four days, no fish. I’m a fisherman. I’ve failed.”
Days pass, his lips parch, the last sip of water is gone. He throws the line, again and again, into the depths . . . and waits . . . .
In an instant, there’s a tug. Then stillness. Then a big tug—and a huge marlin leaps into the air, dives, leaps again. The fish pulls the boat farther out to sea. The fisherman grips the rope, wraps it around his shoulders, battling the speed and weight of the fish. The man’s hands are torn and bleeding, but he can’t let go.
He speaks to the great fish, as if in prayer. “I’m stronger than you,” he says, again and again. “I love and respect you, but I will kill you.”
He throws a spear, and the fish goes still. He lashes the fish to the side of the boat. Victorious. He will be respected again. They will call him “the fisherman.”
As the boat sails toward home, the man spies fins above the water: Sharks circle his catch. He spears one, and the spear is lost. He ties his knife to a pole and spears another, and the knife is lost. He knows that his victory is past, his prize soon to be gone.
He apologizes to the great fish as it becomes a carcass.
When the old man comes to shore, the people gather, relieved that he’s alive and astounded at the size of the carcass. He heaves the mast across his tired shoulders, falls forward, rebalances himself, and carries it, like Jesus carrying the cross.
His young apprentice praises him. And he responds, “A great loss, a great gain.”
For some of us, the call to retire is a divine messenger, a force that awakens in us a yearning for something more, a longing to transcend a role, an identity, or a purpose and to connect with something larger. Without the heavily structured days, without the obligations and the hurried pace, retirement can be an invitation to slow down and contemplate the lessons learned from the life we have lived. If we open the invitation, we may feel a reconnection to the playfulness and wonder of childhood.
But, like the fisherman, some of us deny and resist the call to retire. Disoriented, we cannot imagine a life without the structure and purpose of work. Disconnected, we feel empty as we try to imagine what would fill our days. We feel anxious when others interrogate us: What will you do? And that dread stops us from letting go. If we are identified with our doing, if our worth is determined by our success and appearance – “I am a fisherman.” “I am a doctor.”
“I am a teacher.” “I am a Mom.” – then we cannot open the invitation.
What would it mean for this fisherman to stop being a fisherman? What would it mean to put down the spear, appreciate the beauty of the great fish, or simply allow it to reenter the depths and live its life? What would it mean for him to become a grandfather, a mentor to young boys, or a village storyteller?
What stops him from stopping?
Perhaps the loss of his lifelong role is too disorienting to face. Perhaps he fears becoming irrelevant to the village. Perhaps he fears becoming dependent. Certainly, he fears facing his mortality. His internalized ageism tells him that if he cannot catch fish, he has no worth. Perhaps it also tells him that if he is no longer a young, triumphant provider, he’s not fit to do anything else. And so, like many of us, he just keeps doing the same thing, the only thing he knows how to do.
For each of us, decisions about work in late life—if, when, and how we’ll retire, and what we will do afterward—are acutely personal. But I suggest that late life is a time to turn inward, to make a transition from a heroic focus on doing to an Elder’s focus on being. It’s not necessary to stop doing in order to start being. The evolution from role to soul is not about what we do but how we do it. It’s about the ego’s capacity to let go of striving to uphold a self-image.
The fisherman couldn’t let go. To his ego, that would mean he was a failure. And he could not face defeat; he could not retire from his role. The question—to retire or not to retire—implies a deeper question: Do we identify with the Doer in heroic mode, or do we act on behalf of something greater as an Elder?
Let’s explore the conscious and unconscious processes by which we wrestle with one of the big questions of late life: to retire or not to retire?
Gerontologist Rick Moody suggested to me that our images of retirement are like a Rorschach test about aging: We project our fears and dreads onto it. And we project our unfulfilled wishes and fantasies onto it, too. Both are carried by unconscious shadow characters.
As we consciously ask ourselves whether to retire or not, perhaps over years of transition, many voices will arise: “I’m a fisherman.” “Who am I if not a fisherman?” “If I catch the big one this last time, I will be respected again. If I don’t, I’ll be no one. Worthless, invisible. Just waiting to die.”
In the parable, the fisherman cannot face the first step of this passage: letting go. He cannot let go of more than the obvious fishing rod; that is to say, his ego is identified with his role and his past achievements. He cannot let go of the fight, the hero’s eternal battle with the adversary. The fisherman has not made the shift from the midlife heroic values of action and victory at any cost to the more reflective late-life values of inner work, self-care, service, and compassion.
I like to imagine that the fisherman knows, in his heart, that his pride ruined both the great fish and his own soul; that his reach exceeded his grasp, and his gain became a loss.
If we, too, approach the threshold of retirement in denial, we will hold on to past identities, worn-out patterns, and empty meanings. We too will allow our fears of change to keep us from leaving the battlefield and entering the field of the unknown—that is, liminal space. And we too will collude with a culture that values human doing over human being.
On the other hand, we may, even from a young age, eagerly imagine that the end of work makes all our wishes come true: We imagine what it would be like to have enough money to feel carefree, travel the world, and learn new things. This, too, is a projection onto retirement that doesn’t account for late-life realities of financial limits, health crises, family needs, and emotional loss.
However, if we can turn within, quiet our minds, and observe our thoughts, other whispers can be heard: “I will have more time to follow my own flow, rather than live on the clock.” “I can return to the creative dreams that I put aside to support the family.” “I will be able to take care of the grandkids.” “I can become more engaged in that charity that I love.” “I will finally be able to meditate for as long as I want.” “Perhaps something will arise in the open space—a surprise.”
In this way, using self-observation, we can engage in retirement as spiritual practice. We can start to orient toward our inner lives and to notice the shadow characters that are either refusing the call to retire or romanticizing the call. We can observe these obstacles, rather than obey them. And, perhaps, we can heed the call of the soul as it urges us to a new stage of life.
Shadow-work is a bit like fishing: We dip into the depths and wait, watching. We feel a tug, then it disappears. We feel another tug, a stronger pull. Then our whole boat is pulled off course, the line breaks, and we are adrift, floating in liminal space between work and retirement or between retirement and a new purpose.
“I wish I knew what I’m up against,” we say to ourselves. But our adversary, an inner obstacle, is invisible, outside of conscious awareness in the shadow. “I’m afraid of the unstructured time,” we say. “I’m afraid of giving up the income. I’m afraid of losing all my colleagues, of feeling irrelevant and purposeless.”
If we listen even more closely, we may hear, “I’m afraid that retirement means the end, that it means death is right around the corner.” This is dreaded mortality awareness, which often arises with thoughts of retirement.
Perhaps you can allow this awareness to lead you to a deeper question: “If I don’t stop working, will I die with regret?”
My client George, at the age of seventy-three, continued to manage daily operations of his insurance firm. Although he was bone-tired and missing time with his grandkids, he didn’t want to slow down or retire. When asked why, he told me that both his grandfather and his father became useless in retirement.
“Grandpa watched TV all day and basically bossed around Grandma. Then, when Dad quit his job, he did nothing but play bridge and eat, until he became obese in his seventies. They both seemed sad and useless after they stopped working, so I dread retiring. I don’t think I ever will.”
As we explored further, George came to see that the men in his family were negative role models for retirement. He had embodied an unconscious image of his grandfather sitting in a rocker, watching TV, that he carried throughout his life. Now, he was unable to switch gears himself and move toward letting go because he believed, unconsciously, that people in retirement were “useless” to others and to society.
“When men are no longer providers, who are we?” he asked.
I shared with him the following: In a seven-year study, researchers compared two groups of people between the ages of seventy and seventy-nine. People in the first group felt useful to friends and family; people in the second group did not. Over the course of seven years, those who felt useless were more likely to become disabled, losing mobility or capacities to care for themselves, or to die. So, the researchers surmised, the subjective feeling of usefulness shapes health in older adults.
Thinking about all this, George came to understand that an unconscious shadow character was defending him against feeling useless by continuing to push him at work. But, by unknowingly relying on this strategy, he was failing to let go and enter liminal space. He was failing to enjoy a new rhythm, explore the dreams he had left behind in his shadow, and shift from role to soul.
Gradually, George became ready to do shadow-work with the “useless retiree.” On a whim, he enrolled in a watercolor class and, to his surprise, became captivated. The decision to work part-time followed, and then he shifted to a consultancy for his company. When it became clear that the vice president could replace him, he retired. And the “useless retiree” shadow receded.
“I feel a sense of freedom that I didn’t know was possible,” he told me. “When I’m painting, I feel the wonder I haven’t felt since childhood. It’s as if I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do. And I didn’t even know it until I recovered that memory.” He had found the gold in the dark side.
Retirement can serve as a divine messenger that carries us across a threshold—or it can be denied. It can be a call that ends the midlife journey and launches a new stage of life to become an Elder—or it can go unheeded.
When I retired from clinical practice several years ago, I let go into the unknown. I felt tentative, uncertain, yet knowing intuitively that I needed to heed the call. When I wake up now, I breathe deeply and look around in wonder. I’m retiring the past. I’m retiring the future. I’m practicing presence. Just here. Aging breath by breath. Practicing the shift from role to soul.
About the Author
Connie Zweig, Ph.D., is a retired therapist and writer. Known as the Shadow Expert, she is coauthor of Meeting the Shadow and Romancing the Shadow and a novel, A Moth to the Flame: The Life of Sufi Poet Rumi. Her new bestselling book, The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, extends her work on the Shadow into midlife and beyond and explores aging as a spiritual practice. It won both the 2021 American Book Fest Award and the 2021 Best Indie Book Award for best inspirational non-fiction. Connie has been doing contemplative practices for more than 50 years. She is a wife, stepmother, and grandmother. After all these roles, she’s practicing the shift from role to soul.