A personal reflection on retirements and reunions:
“Either you’re in transition or you’re in denial.”
According to my high school students, there are six stages in a person’s life: Before you get your driver’s license, 16, 18, 21, Senility, and Death. They showed little doubt where their teachers fell in the continuum.
Of course, there are other theories: Jung’s idea of the Athlete, the Warrior, the Statesman, and the final more Spiritual stage—the one that seemed so elusive as I tried to stay in shape, learn how to teach Hamlet to high school seniors, and negotiate the roles of husband and father. And others have their theories, from Erik Erikson to Gail Sheehy.
As I looked over the program on my way to my 35th reunion at Amherst, I could see that the stage of retirement (from Latin for “drawing back”) was a recurrent theme. Topics included “Surviving Retirement—An Insider’s View,” “Managing Life Transitions in Your 50s and 60s” and “When I Retire, Will I Go Crazy? (Preventing the King Lear Effect).” And a related threat: “Memories Are Made of This: How Memories Are Formed, Why We Forget, and How Aging and Disease Affect Our Ability to Form Memories.” Also, “New Directions in Medicine and How They Affect the Mature Population.” I decided not to attend “What We Should Think About Euthanasia?” sponsored by a very young-seeming class of ’79.
All of which encouraged me to develop my own theory, one based on the five acts of Shakespearean tragedy, keyed especially to Hamlet, a play I had taught for 32 years. I call it the Act IV Syndrome. Our lives are divided into five acts, each approximately 15 years in length. In Act I, we grow to our adult bodies, and we are introduced to a central conflict: the difficulty of living an engaged life. The Ghost introduces Hamlet to this when, encouraging him to get revenge, he says, “Oh, grow up!” Then in Act II, ages 16-30, we complete our formal education, launch our career and family. This coincides with Hamlet’s pretending to be insane, an apt parallel if we can remember what it was like to be in our 20s.
We intensify our commitments to career and family in Act III, ages 31-45. This is when our young kids sap all our time and energy while we are trying to devote the same to climbing some professional ladder, and making money. It’s when our spouse wonders what happened to the charming person he or she married, and when Hamlet puts on “the play within a play,” becoming fully immersed in the deceptions of the world. He also tells off his mother and kills the wrong man by mistake. It’s a time of achievement and energy—much of it misdirected.
Let’s wait a moment on Act IV. Act V—ages 61-75 (and beyond, given our extended life expectancies) is when we acknowledge our mortality, accept our fate, and take on an identity that is both noble and humble. This is Hamlet in the Graveyard (“Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,/ Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.”) and later, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/ Rough-hew them how we will.” Our rough-hewing days are over.
Act IV? That’s the transition to Act V—the difficult letting go of what seemed so important to us in Act III. It’s where Hamlet allows himself to be sent into exile, and where his girlfriend floats off into suicide. It’s a time of turmoil—yes, ages 46-60—when people divorce and remarry, when we start to question the career that seemed so important to us. It’s a time of reflection—not the tranquil reflection of Act V, but the soul wrenching re-evaluation of core values and whether we are living up to them. It’s frequently a short act in the play, fortunately, and it can be awkward, even badly written, but it is essential on the path to Act V.
The reordering of priorities comes in part from the awareness that we have a finite time on earth. The illness or death of parents creates this awareness, as do, for many, our own illnesses—cancer, heart attacks, brain aneurysms, alcoholism, and staring dumbfounded at the jars of pills we know we will be taking for the rest of our lives. It also springs from an awareness that we don’t have the energy/waistline/hair/memory that we used to have, or that we no longer have the agility at work that seems more valued than the wisdom we think we have accumulated.
With this theory in mind, I approached my ’64 classmates and people from ’59, back for their 40th. The usual response to my theory was, “That’s a good theory—but it doesn’t quite apply to me.” That didn’t deter me because I knew that Shakespeare didn’t divide his plays into acts. And besides, what can one expect from Amherst alums if not critical evaluation?
Few really wanted to talk about “retirement” or to call it by that name. A classmate admits, “I’m scornful of people who say they are retired.” My attitude toward my own recent retirement from high school teaching generated my own self-scorn because it meant a lack of identity. Once I was a teacher, and now I am not. At a session sponsored by the class of ’59, someone make the point that we are often identified by how we answer the question, “What do you do?” and the answer is usually in terms of occupation—attorney, medical researcher, investment banker, or the like. Not very often is the answer “I’m a father” or “I drink breakfast coffee and study the birds at the feeder.” Or even “I attend meetings, talk on the telephone, and ride on airplanes.” No, we take identity from our productive jobs. And when I retired from teaching, I often felt more unemployed than retired. But now, when asked on my 1040 or my mortgage application or at my Amherst reunion, I can say I’m a writer, and I feel I have a center. It’s an illusion, of course. Robert Frost claimed on his 1040 that he was a “farmer.”
Retirement can be frightening. A recently retired classmate quoted a friend who “thought he needed to experience some career silence.” The silence was painful, largely because of the way he experienced time. He works out longer and is reading the Bible and works in philosophy and religion, but he finds his day consumed by errands and looking after his six-year old son. It’s enjoyable, but not, at the end of the day, enough. In fact, recently retired John Cooper (’64) is writing a book dealing with the fears and difficulties of retirement, especially the psychological ones. The title: Surviving Retirement, and the first chapter, “Not Necessarily Nirvana.” Just so.
The trick, as many of my classmates in their mid-50s have found, is not to retire but simply to change. A writer of mysteries is starting a publishing company. Several people are leaving large business or law firms where they feel overwhelmed and underappreciated to start their own smaller and more humane companies. Some are making more radical career changes, from dentistry to financial consulting, or from the regularities of teaching to the uncertainties of writing. And in some ways the most difficult of all—some stay in the same roles, high school teacher or newspaper editor, and struggle to make the adjustments needed to remain fresh.
Others are creating change by starting new families. A classmate, divorced after a 30-year marriage, is building a new house for himself. Another, married a few years ago, showed up with twin daughters the age of my granddaughter—a change that meant anything but retirement. Psychiatrist Ben Oko (’59) saw the new family in a different light—the change in marital relationship that resulted from a change in job. If you are home more often with your spouse, you are forced into increased discussion and negotiation: a new sense of family. My wife responded to my retirement and consequent working at home by taking a part-time job outside our home. Go figure.
Many in the class of ’59 mentioned a need to step back, “to make proper use of our lives.” Some found ways to reduce hours, working part time while devoting more time to philanthropic work, to family and friends, or to building a new home. “The secret,” one explained, “is not to retire from something, but to retire to something.” We need a project, a vision, to provide the focus that generates energy.
On Saturday night of Reunion Weekend I retired (drew back) early to my room on the third floor of Mayo-Smith. There, as the noise from the younger parties started to fade, I thought about the word “transition.” I remembered from a Lamaze class ages ago that transition was the most difficult, the most painful part of birth. And though I took some comfort in saying that I was not really “retired” but “a writer,” I knew about the pain—and not just the pain of being elected Class Secretary earlier that evening. Transitions are difficult in part because of the ambiguity: the need to let go, and the need to stay engaged.
It was on the way home from Amherst that I saw a way out of the pain. The solution is in the reunion itself. We stay engaged by keeping in touch with the people who are important to us. As Mark Sandler (’64) said in his presentation on surviving retirement, one way to make it meaningful is to meet and talk with interesting or even unlikely people—in contrast with the occasionally unpleasant people whom your worklife had forced you to deal with. You know who I mean. For many—for me—these deep friendships involve people met at Amherst. And interestingly, for many—for me—it means making new friends from the pool of classmates who I never really knew on campus years ago. The chemistry of the reunion sometimes makes that happen. And that’s why I took on the burdens of writing Class of ’64 Notes.
In one of the sessions sponsored by the class of ’59, a person not on the panel pointed out that in the Southeast, where he comes from, the key to establishing a person’s identity is not in the answer to “What do you do?” but “Who is your family?” And while I am distorting the meaning a bit when I say it, we do have a measure of control over who we include as our “family”—the friends we choose to embrace with love and forgiveness. Let me put it another way: One of the things we learned at Amherst is to question underlying assumptions. In English 1-2, Roger Sale stated it more baldly when he explained his grading scale: If you fulfill the assignment, you get a C. If you reject the assignment, you get a B. Only if you redefine the terms of the assignment do you earn an A (which I never got). So we can reject and redefine the terms of the question, “What do you do?” to mean “Who is your family?” And we can include work that does not give us power in the old ways through income, status, or leverage over other people, but instead through the blessings of connection itself. Volunteering at a hospital or elementary school, sharing yourself with grandchildren or with your grown children who may be even more confused than we are—this is all holy work, empowering work.
Put another way (quoting here another from ’59): “Retirement is an issue of loss of control—moving away from an area where we had some control. We must find an area where we do have control over our life.” And while some of this control can be won through thoughtful planning for our retirement years, it can also be won by a process of redefinition. Bob Teare (’59) quoted King Lear’s words to Cordelia after he fully gave up both his power and his struggle to reclaim it:
No, no! Come let’s away to prison.
We two will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too:
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, pack and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.
The wisdom here lies in Lear’s realization that what was once so important to him (“Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out”) is now nothing more than an amusing game for “poor rogues,” a spectator sport enjoyed by the repeated “we” and “us”—Lear connected (tragically, too late) with his family.
But that is Act V, and we are, many of us, in Act IV. Remember all of the conversations that were part of our Amherst education—in the classrooms, the dorms, Valentine, and even the fraternities. Remember the disquieting and argumentative nature of most of those conversations—so much so, that some choose not to return to the college. These conversations, continuing in the formal programs during Reunion Weekend as well as in the informal talk all over campus, reveal a fundamental restlessness. We called it “intellectual curiosity” back in the ‘60s, but it’s more than that. Our restlessness strikes me, in mid-fifties, as more spiritual than intellectual, and it needs to be honored. The restlessness is a hunger for meaning and connection—the opposite of Lear’s retirement. It’s why Rabbi Peter Rubinstein (’64) went to Albania and Hungary to meet with refugees: to bear witness, and to challenge us by asking how we will respond when our grandchildren ask, “Did you know? And what did you do about it?” It’s why pre-geezers my age take on new families, new businesses, new roles. It’s why we struggle with our transitions, why we need to talk about them with friends we love.