January 15, 2023
I used to be ambitious. As a child encouraged to draw and paint by my parents and grandparents, I assumed that I was destined for artistic triumphs. Later, I transmuted my imagined masterpieces into works of landscape architecture. Maybe I would design the next Versailles or the next Central Park. Who knew? But whatever locus my ambition took, I was sure it would lead me to a place in the spotlight. I basked in full confidence that the arrow of my destiny pointed upwards.
Decades have passed and now I am at the age of retirement. Instead of retiring full stop, though, I’ve been dabbling in it. I’m working less here and there, and I’m experimenting with a new hobby called writing. Since I’m privileged enough to be self-employed, retirement is not an either-or proposition. ‘You have no need to decide,’ I keep telling myself. Blessed with the luxury of turning the work-spigot up or down, why should I turn it off entirely, covering it up for the winter?
On the other hand, the vision of full-stop retirement promoted in TV ads for bucolic “over 55” communities, beckons. If you’re not too snobbish, Jimmy Buffett is building a “Latitude Margaritaville” sunbelt resort community near you. Endless rounds of tennis or golf. Horseback rides on the beach. ‘Smores at the campfire; blowing soap bubbles in the sunshine with cute grandchildren. Apart from the fact that I am a snob, why not embrace that?
The rock in my path has everything to do with my childhood ambition, an ambition that never went away but was pared back over the years by competition and the wear and tear of work and life. To surrender myself to retirement means admitting that my ambition has led me as far as it was ever going to. That, most likely, I am already the most I will ever be. In other words, it means acknowledging that my destiny no longer points upwards. That’s scary to admit.
I’m not the only one who has approached retirement as a conundrum. In a recent book, “Independence Day: What I’ve Learned About Retirement from Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will,” the journalist Steve Lopez faces his own ambivalence about retiring by interviewing scores of senior citizens. Hoping to receive their collective wisdom in the form of united consensus, he was surprised to discover that just as many people preferred not to retire as those who deliberately chose it. In one case, a woman who had counted the days to her independence after a long career begged her company to take her back only days after her rowdy going-away party, with all its toasts and cheers. Metaphorically speaking, she could not face the newly empty view out her living-room window.
Now entering my “golden years,” the person I want to be is not one who retires or does not retire. Instead, I want to be the person who reinvents himself; the person who uncovers a whole new horizon lying before him. Eager for a new lease-on-life, that ideal me is anxious to embrace a new outlet for my ever-present ambition. This time around, however, I know I must attenuate my desire for a place in the spotlight. By now I’m old enough to understand that, like the masks of comedy and tragedy, ambition wears two faces. One face smiles with the joy of marshalling one’s primal energies and unexpected talents into new endeavors while the other grimaces with envy at all those who have enjoyed greater success. One is life-giving; the other is enslaved to the ego.
All those years ago when I imagined the artistic masterpieces I would produce, I got it wrong. I focused my ambition on the objects I would produce rather than on the journey I would take to produce them. In business lingo, I was ‘product-oriented, not process-oriented.’ As I move into my retirement or non-retirement, I resolve to slow down enough to enjoy the scenery on my way to my destination. When I arrive wherever that is, it may not be Paris, but it will still be beautiful.
Way back in 1993, a counselor put it this way to my AIDS grief group: “The first half of life is about doing; the second half is about being.” I think I’ll give being a try.