I had a conversation about retirement this week with a 28-year old guy. I needed some advice. My retirement’s going along okay, more or less, now that I am three months into it. I took a road trip to the west coast and back, read about 25 books, spent about 250 hours writing, visited children and grandchildren, tended to my small farm (25 different vegetables in the backyard, plus 57 different kinds of flowers in the front yard, plus one head of livestock: Earl-the-Cat.) I’ve also deep cleaned around the house, organized closets, gone to the gym, played tennis, biked around town, kept up with the news, gossiped with my neighbors, socialized with friends (as much as COVID will allow)… and I’ve attended the annual wake for the Chicago Cubs, checking in on them from time to time as they died a long and pathetic death this baseball season.
But something’s not right. I have energy for about three hours a day and then I’m too exhausted to do anything else. That would be understandable if I were having health problems. But other than typical old-man issues, I’m healthier than I’ve been in ten years. This is neither the fatigue of bad health nor the fatigue of lingering too long in the fast lane. It’s more like the fatigue caused by restlessness, by not exactly being yourself, by not yet finding your groove. Nothing can be more exhausting than not living in the true definition of yourself.
Many of us are so defined by the work we do, that even those who hate their jobs find retirement disorienting. Leaving the work force forces us to face existential questions. (Definition of an existential question: the kind of question where, if you answer it wrong, you will plunge into a life-changing, miserable quagmire.) Most retired (and retiring) people are consumed with two pragmatic questions: 1) what will I do now and 2) will I have enough money to live on? No other questions seem to matter. But anyone who wants to be emotionally healthy and socially ethical in retirement needs to ask the existential questions: 1) what defines me? and 2) how can I do all the good I can? These existential questions are not just for retirement, of course. They are fundamental during each phase of adulthood. Any time we are unusually exhausted, it is likely that we are not really engaging our existential questions.
And so it was that I had a conversation this week with my own 28-year old self. In the summer of 1982, I went to a seminar on Cape Cod led by James Dittes. I had been in ministry for ten years by then, out of seminary for two, and our first child had just been born. I was both radical and fanatical in my devotion to being a pastor. But that summer my congregation was conniving to get rid of me and my wife was suffering from severe post-partum depression. Something had to change before I broke, so I headed off to Cape Cod in search of some answers.
I kept a journal that week. Dittes asked us to list the things that made us “happier than ministry.” It was hard for my self-righteous self to admit, but after a decade of church work, there were many things that made me happier. I listed swimming in the ocean, the smell of fresh mown grass, getting a paycheck… Dittes talked about the imaginary “box” everyone employs to define (and confine) who clergy are, or should be. It turned out that every one of us at the retreat (we were all clergy) hated letting strangers know what we did for a living, so hideous and dehumanizing was the public's understanding of the profession. Some folks there even confessed that they lied to strangers about what they did for a living. For years after that, I too tried to lie to strangers when asked “the question.” But I wasn’t very good at it and eventually went back to telling the truth after about a decade.
Dittes told us that in the Old Testament, God spent a lot of effort trying to get people to understand him, issuing all sorts of warnings about idolatry. But by the time of Jesus, God just gave up and plunged into helping people, regardless of their dorky notions about divinity. The powers of Jesus did not come from trying to get other people to understand him properly. He was powerful because he defined his own self, despite other people’s ridiculous expectations.
Furthermore, Dittes asked us to think about how gender also puts us in a box. In my case, what were people expecting from me as a husband, father, eldest son, adult man?
He invited us to ask ourselves existential questions: what defines me and how can I do the most good with who I really am? My 28-year old self wrestled the questions and kept a journal. And this week I pulled out that journal and had a conversation with it.
Among other entries, I had listed back then 27 things I yearned to do in my free time, things that could stand independent of being a pastor. (I checked off how many of them I’m still doing today.) Back then I wrote about the idolatry people have of pastors. I wrote about the idols of “manhood” society had fashioned, and how deadly they felt. I noted how hard I was trying to live up to some of those “manly” stereotypes, with ill effect. I wrote about how I might find my true identity while being aflush in all the nonsense.
It turns out, in that conversation, that the young man still had something to teach his elder, even though the old man had more scars and stories, even though the young man could not imagine all the things the old man would see, all the changes that would take place in histories yet unfolded. Even though circumstances have changed dramatically over time, the old man and the young man are existentially the same person, with the same defining center. This makes the perspectives of the young man profoundly germane for his older self. When the circumstances of life change, we must adjust. But we can never be defined by those circumstances, no matter how they might box us in. And this is one of life’s most important existential questions: how can we adjust through all of life’s twists and surprises without letting them define us?
As the young man journaled, he tried to see beyond the successes and failures he was experiencing in 1982. He pondered what would make him happy, regardless of what was expected of pastors…or husbands, or fathers, or men in general. He thought he’d like to toss horseshoes, cook for people, travel the world, take care of a pet, grow vegetables and flowers, write a book, play tennis and golf, learn more about the stars and planets… He thought he’d like to color outside the lines that others had pre-drawn for his career. He thought he’d like to be retired someday so he wouldn’t have to give a damn what anyone else thought.
I finished looking through the notebook from that summer, and felt grateful for the chance to glean a little from that young man. He reminded me to never define myself by my circumstances, even retirement. He knew nothing of cell phones, electronic books, personal computers, the internet, cable TV…although sadly he did know about the misery the Cubs could get themselves into by the middle of the summer. But all that is merely changing circumstances. The young man relished who he was at the center, who he'd always been: his own sense of humor, his curiosity, his ambition to do something significant, his joy in stimulating people's imaginations, his yearning for a more just world... In these he was able to briefly glimpse his own self-definition: who he was without the interference of expectations, diseases, accidents, historic changes… The epistle of Peter claims that God placed something imperishable deep within each of us. That is what the young man was seeking to see and understand… and devote himself to. And in his journal, he left the old man a trail of crumbs that might be reviving after all.
 James Dittes (1927-2009) was a professor of Pastoral Psychology at Yale. He had a huge influence on me through that Cape Cod retreat and through his books, especially Minister on the Spot, When the People Say No: Conflict and the Call to Ministry, Driven by Hope: Men and Meaning, The Male Predicament: On Being a Man Today, and Re-Calling Ministry.