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The Spiritual Journey of Refirement

Retirement as Refirement

Retirement traditionally was the square that a person landed on in the playing board of life roughly five years before they died. In the nineteenth century and before, men grew up, worked, retired, and died, with most men dying within three to five years after they stopped working. By 2000, as medicine has added years to our lives, many are seeking to add life to those years by either continuing to work well beyond the traditional life marker of sixty-five. Many will spend 25 percent of their lives in retirement (Dychtwald, 1999).

Today, there are many options available to people regarding work. They may choose to retire early or downshift to less stressful jobs. Many with whom I speak say they don’t necessarily want to stop working, but they just don’t want to work as hard. Employers seeking younger and less expensive workers may be forced into early retirement. Some retire from one job to move on to a second or third career, part-time or full-time. Some, because they delayed making life choices until later in their careers, still have college tuition bills to pay for their children or have a house mortgage requiring them to work.

Most of us have outdated ideas about retirement. You may feel that retirement means being useless; sitting around and watching television; or playing golf all the time. Ask yourself these questions: What did retirement mean to your father or mother, or your grandfather or grandmother? How did that generation define retirement? Does retirement mean "being put out to pasture" to you?

Today, we have new and vital images of retirement, which are shaped by radically different workplaces. At what age would you like to retire? What will you do when you retire? What is your image of retirement?

How to Refire

"Retirement is highly overrated as a major life problem. There is no evidence that retirement today is bad for your health" (Vaillant, 2002). The following steps can reduce the problems commonly associated with retirement.

1. Find a new sense of happiness. You may still love your job, but you also need to find what else you love. Rumi said, "Let yourself be silently drawn by the pull of what you truly love." When you find what brings you passion, happiness, and love, you will be refired. To paraphrase Jesus who asked, what does it profit a man if he gain the world and lose his own soul.

2. Celebrate life’s changes and retirement by finding a new sense of meaning in living. What gives you passion? What is inside you waiting to be born anew? Wendell Berry wrote, "It may be when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey." In life’s second half, it is not dollars or titles that bring happiness. These are fleeting tokens of success. It is the quality and quantity of meaningful relationships. Learn to play anew with friends and family. Seek continuous learning. "Gusto for education is highly correlated with psychological health" (Vaillant, 2002). Play, create, learn new things, and most especially, make new friends. Do that and getting out of bed in the morning will seem a joy — even if you feel that you are no longer "important," that your joints ache, or that you no longer enjoy free access to the office Xerox machine.

3. The comfort of mature love is the single most important determinant in men’s happiness, especially in retirement. Ninety percent of the happiest retired men are in love with their wives and say they have grown closer since retirement. Now that’s refirement. Ask yourself: What makes me happy today? What gives me energy and where do I feel most alive? What inside you is waiting to come out? When you find what brings you joy, you will be refired, not retired.

4. As children, we learn how to distinguish between fears of real things (being hurt) and imagined fears (the bogeyman hiding under the bed). By the same token, you need to face your real and imagined fears about retirement. You may fear diminished energy and importance. How do you take advantage of the downshifting in your life and see life’s changes differently? Huston Smith, a philosopher of religion, said after turning eighty and suffering from a painful case of facial shingles, "Apparently somebody up there has decided to offer me another teaching" (Smith, 2001). Instead of bemoaning the losses you may be experiencing, marvel at what you are becoming. What are your fears today about retirement?

5. Appreciate your wisdom. In life’s first half, you acquired knowledge, organized it, and disseminated it. In the second half, you gain wisdom and share it with others. Winston Churchill said, "When we are young we sow wild oats. When we get older we grow sage." The key is to appreciate and value the wisdom you have gained over the years. Allow time for your wisdom to settle within you, to see your natural wisdom. Make friends with your emotions. An open, empty mend allows you to discover a freer awareness of what you are feeling. In refirement, you will spend more time with yourself and be subject to fewer distractions. Understanding your emotions will be critical to how you spend your alone time. Don’t expect today’s youth to beat down your door and beg for your wisdom. Instead, you may initiate the exchange and remember what you bring to the table. Maybe it’s okay to be a bit obsolete. In life’s first half, it was important to be recognized by others. In the second half, appreciating your own wisdom without needing approval is sufficient.

6. Come to terms with the "if onlys" that plague you. "If only I did this in my career, then I would be happier." Refirement means letting go. Spirituality is always about letting go of false senses of independence and control, and seeing life as interdependent. Wendell Berry said, "Seed of song, work or sleep, no matter the need, what you let fall, we keep" (Berry, 1985). Learn to rest in the present moment and remember what is, is. By slowing down and drawing in, you open yourself up to fruitful experiences and the richest gifts life has to offer.

Here are some practical suggestions of how to prepare yourself for refirement.

  • Try something new every day. Wendell Berry writes, "Every day do something that won’t compute. Do it for no reason. Love someone who does not deserve it. Ask questions that have no answers. Invest in the next millennium by planting sequoias. Expect the end of the world, then laugh when it does not happen. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts" (Berry, 1985).
  • Part of who you are is what you will be. What are you becoming? What do you want to be now?
  • Revel in non-work activity. Be carefree. See work beyond productivity. Find the peculiar balance between doing and being that suits your soul and your season.
  • Taste things anew. What do you want to taste again, or for the first time? What do you want to savor? In refirement, you have the time, and hopefully the resources, to taste many new things, or old things again for the first time.
  • Envision your refirement. Draw a picture of what retirement will look like when you get there. If it is a negative picture, rethink more positively about how you would like the picture to look. Put words to the picture, writing alongside it the positive emotions you want to have in the future.


Retirement can be a time of decline or refirement. The choice is yours. When you discover your passion and joy in living, a new vision of refirement will emerge.


Berry, Wendell. 1985. Collected Poems: 1957-1982. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Dychtwald, Ken. 1999. Age Power: How the 21st Century will be Ruled by the New Old. New York: Plenum Putnam.

Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Vaillant, George E. 2002. Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

David J. Powell, Ph.D., is President of the International Center for Health Concerns, Inc., in which he is assisting in the development of behavioral health treatment in Asia. He resides half of the year in Beijing and Singapore. Dr. Powell is the author of Playing Life's Second Half: A Man's Guide for Turning Success into Significance,as well as six other books in the mental health field. He has been a clinician and marriage and family therapist for forty years. Dr. Powell can be reached at [email protected]
or www.ichc-us.org.

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