Our first reaction to retirement and changed circumstances is a mix of regret and relief. We are relieved to find that the burdens of practice have been lifted. Though our work lives may be waning, we’re often still tangled up with achievement and ambition and still think in terms of what-might-have-been. What if we’d only pushed a little harder here, been more adept or luckier there? But the early angst of jostling between relief and regret doesn’t last beyond a few years. The good news, sparse though it may be, is that retirement is not a single point, but a process.
It’s as if we can paraphrase Mark Twain, commenting on Richard Wagner’s music: “It isn’t as bad as it sounds.” Retirement can turn out like that, too. The truth is that we accommodate change and adapt, just as our bodies do, to new physiological circumstances. Thankfully, time blunts things, and the allure of prior, important career prospects ebbs. Our activities align to match our prospects. Perhaps we get used to playing the violin at midnight, or sleeping in, or we involve ourselves in other people’s lives.
If retirement is a wake-up punch in our lives, advancing age promises real disruption. Aging, per se, is not an illness, but bodily functions slow, vulnerabilities mount, and debility from disease or decay is inevitable. Some of us rail against our circumstances and regard any diminution in our being with outrage. Others, like the French author Paul Claudel, seem unaffected and hold more buoyant views: “Eighty years old. No eyes left, no ears, no teeth, no legs, no wind! And when all is said and done, how astonishingly well one does without them.”
Claudel’s optimism is said to reflect “body transcendence,” or an ability to move beyond reality. Successful aging has become a topic of vigorous debate but reflects the challenge of finding meaning in adverse circumstances.
Perhaps in pursuit of successful aging, many exceptional oldsters embark on new adventures with gusto, embracing an Ulyssean Journey, so named after Homer’s depiction of Ulysses’ fabled adventures in later life. Others — perhaps the majority — are less rambunctious but more serene, resting and savoring life’s final chapters. Of course there’s every possible scenario, with others, who are overwhelmed by their circumstances and put up with a sort of living death.