Legacy and Retirement

I spent the morning at the Hubbards Market. I met three different men, all in their late 60’s or early 70’s, all retired in the last 5 years. I asked them, “How goes the transition?” Each of them spoke of a period of exhaustion that they needed to squeeze out of their system with frequent naps. For a period of a year these three men transitioned into something new but none had any idea where they were headed. One constant thought on their minds, “Has my work meant anything to anyone?” I call this the legacy question and many men of a certain age carry this question into retirement with a lot of uncertainty.

I’ve noticed that one way of dealing with this anxiety is to keep everything, to keep all of the materials that made your work possible. I often ask these men why they hold on to these items. The answer is almost always some form of “Someone might have need of it”, which sure sounds to me like “Someone might have need of me”. I think wrapped up in these issues is the unspoken concern about whether one’s work has made a difference but also whether one’s future work will be needed. I try as best as I can with these men to hear them out, to listen attentively to their story and absorb the life lessons that can be a) used in my own life and b) catalogue them in my mind to share with persons down the road whom could use this wisdom themselves.

For many retired men this outreach is appreciated and you can feel their joy in sharing what they have learned and done. But these sometimes comes a point when I need to say, “So as I have benefitted from listening to your information and learning you may wish to do likewise with another man in a similar place.” Sometimes this not very subtle hint is heeded, often it is not. Further, there can be an insistence on the part of the man I am listening to that I not only hear their stories but begin to act on their advice. That always feels a tad presumptuous and I will on occasion remind them that while I am interested in their story I am not necessarily interested in following the same path.

As I look back on my work life I realize there was a crucial life lesson that came to me when I was 40 that changed everything about the way I see the legacy question. I had then worked for some 13 years, most of these included long hours and going to great lengths to serve the needs of those I served. At a critical moment I made a mistake in judgement, bragged when I shouldn’t have, indulged in comparisons between myself and others, and openly shared where I intended to change the church I was then serving. It was embarrassing. But I assumed then that all I had done up till then, the popularity I enjoyed, the total commitment I had given, would somehow mitigate the criticism that would come my way. I was wrong. It was truly, “What have you done for me lately” or more precisely “What have you done to me lately.” I was not surprised by the disappointment, I felt it myself, but I was shocked at the emotions that came with the critique.

In time I came away from that experience with some important learnings, namely that I will make more mistakes and that I need to be prepared to understand that whatever good and extra work I offered in the past was really for my own peace of mind, not to impress others or to receive brownie points that I could count on later to lessen the blow when I messed up. In short I learned that if I chose to work extra hard, offer extra effort, do more than anyone could expect, I did that because I wanted to do it, and for no other reason. I had to accept that what I did I did willingly and without expectation from the other.

I look back now at what I offered in the past with some pride, I did a lot of good work. But I no longer think of this work as a means to be liked, popular or to mitigate any criticism when I make mistakes. I do this work because I want to. And for the same reason when I am no longer able or willing to put in that kind of effort I will stop.

My prayer for men like me who move closer to retirement is that they no longer need worry that holding on to their “stuff” and their learning and their legacy is what validates their lives. What they did, whom they cared for, the ways they met needs, this is their legacy and nothing they do in the present or the future can change that. With the time left there is more to be learned, opportunities to serve and be part of something larger than self, but there need not be the burden of worrying whether anyone cares about what I know or did. Those whom I served in the past know what I did in the past and so do I. That is enough. It’s all what I now call “peace of mind.”