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Valerie SchultzMarch 03, 2023
Photo by Vlad Sargu on Unsplash

If you’ve recently retired from the workforce, you know that the question can assail you in unguarded moments: Did you retire too soon?

I know it well. I retired several years ago from my job in a state prison library. At the time, the decision seemed simple. The year before, we had moved 50 miles away from my work site in order to take advantage of a promotion for my husband. We agreed that I would commute only for a year, as the drive was exhausting, and my paycheck didn’t really justify it. Although I liked my work, as a writer I was happy to quit my day job and jump into my true calling.

But on some days, the thought nags. Did I retire too early? The crossover from work to retirement proved trickier to navigate than I anticipated. Now my husband has joined me in retirement, and I am watching him go through a process I thought was unique to me. I therefore offer these bits of insight into the vagaries of retirement, to both recent retirees and those considering the same.

If you’ve recently retired from the workforce, you know that the question can assail you in unguarded moments: Did you retire too soon?

Give yourself a transitional stage. Although you’ve probably recited a list of projects to everyone you know who has asked you what you plan to do in retirement, you do not have to start them all on your first day off. You might want to ease yourself into the retired life. There’s no guilt in just catching up on “Ted Lasso.”

You can expect to miss the people you worked with for years and your daily familiarity. In spite of the annoyances you don’t miss, you may miss the comfort of the workday routine, of knowing what you’ll be doing all day, of feeling that your life’s work matters. You may miss that Friday feeling, when you leave work in anticipation of a weekend of sleep and diversion and not filling in hours on a timesheet. When you retire, every day is Friday, but no day will likely recapture the glorious expectancy of Friday.

You’ll rehash it in your mind, that decision to retire. You’ll re-weigh the pros and cons, the benefits and obstacles, the losses and gains, in your bouts of private second-guessing: Every major life decision worms its own set of doubts into the psyche. And even though you’ve tightened up or reconfigured your budget, the possibility exists that your carefully considered calculations may not hold up in hindsight. Should that happen, you can take comfort in knowing that your years of work experience have prepared you to cope with whatever loop life may throw you for.

On the occasions when you find yourself wondering if you should have put in more years, keep in mind that perhaps the real underlying question is: Is your time as a productive person over?

On the occasions when you find yourself wondering if you should have put in more years, keep in mind that perhaps the real underlying question is: Is your time as a productive person over?

That is up to you.

People sometimes say you will be busier in retirement than you were while working. I am not, but I do sometimes wonder how I managed to do all the things I still do now and work full-time. There’s a reason so many tireless church volunteers are older folks: We have free time we are willing to give up. My husband has thrown himself into volunteering for organizations that are near to his heart and to which he has always wanted to give more time. He likes being busy. He has expertise to offer. He likes a schedule. He’s a people person.

Still, he too occasionally wonders if he retired too early. We have decided to call this little hankering to go back to work nostalgia. When we are feeling nostalgic, we acknowledge that we miss certain aspects of working: the people, the paycheck, the challenge, the sense of contribution to society. But when we imagine returning to the workforce, we realize that we don’t really want to go back. We take a moment to center ourselves and give this sweet nostalgia its space. Then we move on.

Eventually, you will find that retirement sharpens your focus on what matters in this life. You rediscover that you are actually far more than the work that once defined you.

You may suspect you are underperforming at retirement. You worry that you’re wasting time, that you’re not making every precious moment count, because you’ve lost the urgency of work deadlines. You may panic: Is it possible to fail at retirement? If you’re like me, you’ve probably fretted about being a failure at any job you’ve ever had. But be kind to yourself. If it helps, think of retirement as a new position, with new rules, in which you will soon feel competent.

Some of those rules will be hurled at you from sources with good intentions: Get enough sleep, but don’t get too much sleep. Go outside. Answer your phone. Use the senior discount. Foster an old dog. Treasure your health but also write your will. Do the crossword puzzle. Listen to young people. Live each day like it’s your last because one of them is definitely going to be. (Sobering, that.)

Eventually, you will find that retirement sharpens your focus on what matters in this life. You rediscover that you are actually far more than the work that once defined you. Indeed, who you are starts to mean more than what you do. You also realize that you are a step closer to meeting your Maker. You understand the fleeting fragility of your aging body in a way that hones your holy sense of soul. Your physical capabilities will break down—to dust you shall return, after all—but what lasts is the essential you: the way you connect to your loved ones, the way you treat strangers, the way you care for posterity, the way you serve your God, the way you let go of the immaterial, the way you accept that your ties to the temporal will one day be cut.

And from under the weight of these heavy thoughts peeks the lightness of this impossibly lovely life. Remember to let it in. Savor it gently. When all is said and done, no doubt you retired right on time.

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