Hello. I feel like I should reintroduce myself to you as I have just finished my five-year term of service at Catholic Relief Services and now write to you in my status as "me" and not president and CEO, or dean, or professor or whatever titles I have held since starting my professional career in 1979. Yes, this is THE big step: retirement.
Retirement is definitely about letting go. A friend told me that retirement was very difficult for him. After giving notice to his board, he found himself depressed and carrying a great deal of anxiety and hostility toward nothing in particular and everything in general. He eventually sought help from a counselor.
There are also others who count their days toward retirement with detailed plans for relocation, coursework already selected at local colleges and new memberships in all sorts of volunteer, exercise and learning communities. For most people, including myself, it is probably a mix of both: joyful anticipation of the fruits from decades of hard work as well as a sense of scrambling when we lose our footing in familiar structures.
While everyone’s reaction to retirement differs, I think beyond the practical financial, health and health-care considerations, the gut-level issue pertains to identity and worth.
Who are we without our professional roles and titles? How would we look at ourselves without being a provider? Will we now begin all sentences with the past tense such as "I was a … " or "I did …" Do I matter anymore? To whom?
Identity and relevance are so innate to us that even a child gets it. I remember our younger son who moved to South Bend, Ind., as a fourth-grader coming home from the first day of school with the lamentation, "It sucks to be a nobody."
As hard as they are, I think the questions about identity and worth compose the embossed invitation for reimagination, this time hopefully where God has the central role. So often, frenetic routines, commitments that could not be denied or worries about this and that tyrannized our schedules and squeezed out prayer time, stillness or just sitting with God long enough for the heart to let out a belly laugh for all the blessings that fill us.
The uncluttered life creates space to listen to God who has been speaking all along. We can now "un-mute" God’s broadcasts, all of which have the same refrain of love without limits, while weaving through the verses of love and loss, successes and failures, sickness and health, regrets and fond remembrances, now and eternal. It is a time for celebrating our lives, not only in terms of what we have achieved, but also how others have carried us.
For me, it is also a time to do different things where grades, issued by others or myself, no longer matter. The only criterion will be the joy of experience and discovery, not mastery, of knowledge and skills. These help me to appreciate the ingenuity and giftedness of people, which I take as the manifestation of God’s generosity to and collaboration with my fellow human beings.
Over 20 years ago, Father Mark O’Keefe of St. Meinrad Archabbey Seminary in Indiana said something that stayed with me. Getting older, he reflected, was about letting go: our youth, looks, athletic prowess, jobs, parents, other loved ones, various abilities and eventually our independence.
I remember feeling sad then. But now the second part of his comment comes into focus: We let go so that we can turn to God’s grace to know how much we are loved and look to him as the destination of our journey.
Woo is the former president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services and former dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.