The Long Stare
When it's time to go
Certain words in the English language are just inherently uninteresting. Interesting, for one, is a dolt of word. Another word that strikes me as a bolus of Novocaine to the brain is retirement.
While interesting is a word with little or no connotations attached to it, retirement, on the other hand, is a dull word with schizophrenic connotations. Some would say it connotes warm days on the golf course, long lunches, and naps in the shade. Others see it as a little more sinister, something akin to a stay at a CIA black site. I tend to fall in the latter camp.
It makes me somewhat uneasy when I hear people pining for retirement—visualizing it as some sort of secular Holy Grail grasped after a life of toil. That calculus might work well for a Sandals marketing campaign, but it falls short as a way to lead a life. Whatever we do, retired or not, has to have some meaning, stir some passion, or connect us to something, otherwise we are lost.
Maybe you can get connected to a sunset on a Florida beach, but it seems like a transitory joy—not one you can really take to your grave. And it could be that the Holy Grail is less a destination to be reached than a quest unto itself— a life of fits and starts, turns left and right, in search for what makes you happy and, hopefully, does some good for others around you.
Retirement has been on my mind—not for personal reasons—but because over the last couple of years, I have had three friends retire from a job and life we have all shared for decades. We ski patrolled together—a job with little glory, less money, and virtually no upward mobility. But I know we all loved it.
While it used to be the norm, these days it seems a rarity for people to work together in a job for decades on end. We, on the other hand, spent hour upon hour, day after day, year after year, together in an old log shack perched at 9,000 feet. In that monastery of sorts, a job morphs into a family, and a way of life, and through sheer force of time gathers meaning. I think of the innocuous facts I’ve learned about these longtime co-workers. They are tics and habits, nuances of speech, instincts and skills they possess, words they tend to use, views peculiar to each of them. Whether you find those tics and nuances annoying or endearing is irrelevant; they form a sort of scaffolding for friendship. Over time they harden and solidify. A similar braiding of lives happens in fire stations and military units, and, of course, marriages. The little things bind us together over time.
I don’t think it matters what you actually do, but do something for years and years and it acquires an inherent value. And so, the ending of it comes with anguish. Leaving it is like leaving a family or being exiled from your homeland. Sounds dramatic, I know. But I’ve seen the realization wash over friends, and it is dramatic. It comes in the guise of the long stare to some middle distance. What they see and feel is hard to know. I would guess some longing, fear, uncertainty, maybe acceptance.
What I do know is that life’s poignancy comes with the finiteness of our days, whether we are talking about our life’s work, or simply our lives. More than once I have quoted a passage from “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles. And I’ll do it again because he captures the sentiment:
“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
We all desire relevance in the world’s affairs, however big or small. Once we retire, the cold truth is we cease to be relevant to the current state of affairs. We might have been pillars of an organization, built it, shaped it, but the fact remains—the instant we step away we will be irrelevant in a place for which we were relevant for decades. What I’ve come to appreciate about my friends’ experience over the last few years is that that is a profound reckoning to accept.
Perhaps part of the appeal of retirement is that we sometimes fantasize about going out in dramatic fashion. I spent years as a commercial river guide and still do the occasional trip. But, for whatever reason, I have always envisioned my exit from that world. When it was time, I would position my boat mid-stream, offer a wink and a nod to my guests, ship my oars, and dive into the water. The swim to shore would be brisk and clarifying, the hike out of the wilderness the purest taste of freedom.
Drama or no drama, the problem always lies in the end. Ski patrolling, the line of work that I have shared with these three friends, is physical and often unfolds in rough weather and rougher terrain. More often than not, the physical demands of the job end it for you. You can’t always dictate when you quit. Other professions have similar roadblocks: a surgeon who loses his steady hand is no longer a surgeon, a computer engineer with failing logic fails to be a computer engineer.
None of my friends who retired, really wanted to. They wanted to keep going—but, I think, they wanted to keep going less for the job itself and more for the camaraderie— the little moments of humor and friendship—and a connection to something bigger than self.
What I have come to know about the long stare is that retirement—this tiresome construct of the First World—presents a profound change in life that, more often than not, is suffered alone.
So, when we are cut adrift—whether by our own choosing or by the physical limitations of our bodies—it can be disorienting and a lonely journey through a dark sea. We have only to hope to spot a jetty, a strip of coast in the fog where we might attempt a landing. If we’re lucky, there might even be a spouse or a dear friend out there, maybe just someone with a light and a welcoming wave who might steer us in around the rocks.