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The gift of an unstructured life

Published November 20. 2010 09:00AM

This week I went to one of the best retirement parties I have ever attended.

When Father Arthur Lee retired as rector of our local Episcopal church, so many people wanted to say thank you for his years of spiritual leadership. So they planned a church service and party that was overflowing with love and emotion.

Father Lee was emotional too, commenting honestly about his feelings in leaving his familiar role behind and changing all the rhythms of his life.

"It's exciting," he said, "but it's scary, too."

Father Lee knows retirement is more than a job change. It's a complete change of lifestyle and that can be challenging as well as rewarding.

For anyone facing retirement, the looming question is whether the challenges will outweigh the rewards.

We've all seen people who happily retired, only to find disillusionment in the empty hours that stretched before them each day.

And we've all seen the other end of the spectrum, too. There are many people who fill their retirement years with so many activities that there is never enough time in the day. They wonder how they ever had enough time to work.

I'm one of those people who never wanted to retire and never wanted to leave my newspaper job. I often said if my boss realized how much fun I had at work everyday, he would make me pay him instead of the other way around.

We joked that if I could move my office to sunny Florida, I would still work fulltime for the company.

For me, work was never a "job." It was just a happy, rewarding part of life. But eventually the sunshine state and its year-round outdoor activities beckoned to me, compelling me to move to Florida.

I never expected what I found retirement to be.

I thought it would be hard to fill the hours with as much fun as I had in work. Instead, I found joy in an unanticipated gift - the gift of an unstructured life.

It's been four years since I retired and I still can't get over the freedom of claiming the day for whatever I want it to be.

If I want to be active, my husband and I bike or kayak or go to the gym. If I'm in the mood for more company, I call my friends and we enjoy each other's company.

If I'm in the mood for solitude, I can read to my heart's content or sit quietly and enjoy the wonders of nature.

While I love an unstructured life, it's not for everyone.

I interviewed an unhappy fellow who complains there is nothing to do except watch mindless TV too much. "If I would have known how boring life was going to be after I left work, I never would have retired," he said.

I told him retirement is as much about what you're going to as what you are leaving. What did he think he was going to do when he left work?

"Fish," he said. "That's fun at first, but that gets boring after a while."

My friend, Tom, solved the problem of his frustrating retirement. He went back to work. "There's only so much leisure and sitting around that I can take. I have to be active and I enjoy the challenges of my job," he said.

I talked at length with wise Father Lee and learned he has a good grip on what he thinks will be his main problem in retirement - committing to too much.

A man of many talents and interests, he can't possibly do it all and he's smart enough not to try. From counseling people and being a church pastor for 40 years, he says he's watched a lot of people retire and has observed the stages retirees go through.

"Many who retire move here to Florida after selling their house in their home state. They find they are no longer attached to things and possessions. Instead, they want to have new adventures and do the kinds of things they've never had time for. So they travel, learn new skills and get new hobbies.

"Then the pattern shifts and retirees move into a new phase where relationships take on primary importance. At this stage people want to build better relationships with those they love. They want to heal past hurts and improve their relationship with God and with others."

Then the pattern shifts again. "At this point people try to figure out how they can make this world a better place for having been here. They think about their legacy and how they will be remembered.

"Eventually, many begin to search for meaning and try to lead more purposeful lives," he concluded.

I think I'm moving into that stage where I want to do something more meaningful with the rest of my life. Like Father Lee, I'm listening for a calling for what the Lord wants me to do.

Meanwhile, I'm cherishing the gift of each unstructured day as I enjoy retirement as much as I enjoyed the other stages of my life.

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