We Don’t Seem to Matter Anymore

The other day, a friend broke into a good day by talking about the anxiety his retirement had brought on. I had enjoyed a long, slow walk in the Minuteman Park, listening on my earphones as Spotify played an endless array of Paul Simon songs, then, a little later, a long, slow vodka martini to begin the evening.  This was a week day in September and, for the third year in a row, there would be no return-to-work preparations to worry about.  It felt almost illicit, like I was cheating someone, breaking some ancient and unquestioned rule.

I suppose I’m violating another rule, leaving my friend to talk about myself.  So let me return.  He had had a long and very successful career in the law, in practice early and teaching at a university in the latter stages.  He is the father of three children, all seemingly well set in their lives, and now spends a good deal of time with his grandchildren, each lovelier than the other, with four already in college.  Neither the children, nor the grandchildren, nor his former employees, of course, needed his support.  He’s free; and he’s having trouble with his freedom.

What bothered him most—let’s call him Isaac—was that he didn’t seem to matter any more.  Not to his children, not to his grandchildren—not deeply, anyway—and not to anyone at work.  He wasn’t responsible to anyone.  They weren’t responsible to him.  His successes and failures—whatever they were at this point in his life—are his, alone.  He might be free but he is alone.

Yes, he spends time with friends and that represents another kind of freedom.  Friends are chosen.  Family is not.  Nor, while you are in the midst of work, are employees and colleagues.  They are just part of your life, as unavoidable as the furniture in your home.  They make demands on you; you demand from them.  There’s nothing special about the demands but it’s as though they hold you up, like braces, like the crowd in a subway car where you couldn’t fall if you wanted to.

According to Isaac, it isn’t the loss of company that bothers him.  He loves being alone.  He loves being able to rise in the morning, unfettered, free to read the newspaper or not, free to sit out on his deck and welcome the sun, free to call a friend or read a book.  No, Isaac doesn’t want to be crowded.

But he does want to matter.  More than he had known, mattering to all those people—and all the roles he played with them—had defined who he was as a person.  All those obligations had made him feel important.  It might have been bothersome—Why can’t people manage for themselves,” he had often complained—but it was better to be bothered and important than free and irrelevant.

In his worst moments, Isaac found himself angry at the people who now seemed to abandon him.  Why didn’t they call to ask for his advice or, at least, his company.  He had been important to them.  He knew he was.  Yet, they seemed to have closed in around themselves and their own concerns in a way that didn’t just ignore but excluded him.  Walls had been erected that now seemed to hard to scale.

Outside those walls, Isaac felt confused.  He lacked the information about himself that had come in such abundance during interactions with all those people.  He had to depend on old stories, memory, internal musings, and the feedback of a few people who were still close.  Sometimes he wondered if he was the person he had thought himself to be all those years.

Isaac had a strange feeling of fading away.  Almost literally.  He’d take a walk in the park and, even as he’d pass people, he’d feel invisible.  Unless he called one of his children or set an appointment with a friend, he was beginning to disappear.  It was like living in a Kafka novel.  During the last year or so, he had even lost about fifteen pounds.  That was on purpose, a matter of health.  But it also rendered his corporal being as less.  There was just less of him.  Isaac had become less than the person he had known for all those years.

“It’s a hard transition,” I said.

“Maybe too hard,” Isaac responded.

That comment worried me a bit.  So I tried to offer some perspective.  “When you’re busy, when people need you, partly because we train them to need us, you feel solid.  You know who you are.  Even the hidden parts of you.  You know that that social person isn’t all of you but you also have explanations about how that secretly shy person fits with the sociable you, how the angry or frightened or even the violent side of you relates to the well behaved person you have constructed.  You have an idea of the whole person who has evolved over the years.

“But when you leave the many roles and obligations that support that whole person, it’s as though you pass through a secret barrier and you don’t know what’s on the other side.”

I was a little embarrassed by my attempt to offer this little bit of wisdom or pseudo wisdom.  But I identified with him, at least a bit.  And he didn’t take offense.  In fact, he did feel that some of his parts—the productive, the nurturing part, the confident guy, along with the secret, insecure selves—had split apart.  They were each on their own, had not joined a new configuration, a whole person, that he could call his self.

As a result, Isaac felt like an observer to his life.  Watching as all the parts sought out ways to join or wither or give up.  He noted that some of the fierceness and even his old obsessive attention to projects had no real place in his current life, but those qualities hadn’t yet disappeared.  The same was true for his paternal instincts which, while long waning, were still there.  What would he do with them.  Just tuck them away in some corner of his soul, marked “history.”  That was me then; and this is me now?  But his history was who he was—or that’s what Isaac had always thought.

As we talked, Isaac surprisingly began to chuckle.  “This is getting to sound strange.  Like I’m living in a twilight zone or having some kind of mystical experience.  But that’s not true.  Mostly my experience feels ordinary.  Most of the time, I feel very ordinary.  But not like myself.  And I don’t yet know who I’m becoming.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just repeated myself:  “It’s a hard transition,” Isaac.  I wish I could tell you what’s on the other side of that barrier but I can’t.  I’m not altogether there yet, myself.”

“It feels lonely,” said Isaac.

“There are lots of us walking in this strange land.  We can at least keep each other company.”

“That’s a hopeful thought,” said Isaac.  “I’ll try to keep it in mind.”

 

 

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18 thoughts on “We Don’t Seem to Matter Anymore”

  1. Your friend is in the middle of an Existential Crisis.. Saying he is ‘feeling Invisible’ is a scary place to be.
    I would recommend you may want to reach out to him and suggest he see a therapist or maybe volunteer his time :
    Working with young children
    Or volunteering his time in a homeless shelter.. venture into new territory.. where he will have his self worth defined by those he serves. He needs to be needed. Maybe volunteering
    At a ‘law clinic’
    But he needs to get out of his head.. and use the talents & skills he has amassed over a lifetime

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    1. I agree that he needs to wrestle free from the interior focus and that helping others is a good way to do that. But there is also–I mean ‘also’ and not ‘instead–some value in seeing through the crisis that he is in. It may allow him to move all the way into a greater acceptance of a lesser self and point the way to helping others.

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  2. Sounds like a narcissistic, entitled male bemoaning his loss of power. Rather than obsessing about himself, look around at the rest of society. Who is asking them for their opinions? He had his time upon the stage, it is time for others now. Be grateful about what you had and humbly accept your current blessings.

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    1. I’m sure that’s part of the solution. Who could argue against the need for humility and gratitude. But that doesn’t mean you can simply leap out of the feelings you do have. Maybe distance first, then a leap.

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  3. Life is cyclical is it not. We are continuously dying and being born to something. We tend to forget this in our lives. It is part of nature. It is who we are. Tell Isaac to go into nature and say goodbye to his old life and ask who he is now.

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    1. That’s good advice, Anne, but it’s hard to really say goodbye to your old life and, without the practical need to find a new one, it’s hard to dive in and survive enough of the challenges to really commit to it. Still, it’s the right way to go.

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  4. Geez Barry, this shouldn’t be hard to realize, but we matter most when we’re doing things for others [in need]. Tell your friend to get involved with a community service organization where he can make a difference. That’s why I like Rotary.

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  5. Thank you for this article. This is touching and insightful, and no doubt others will relate. It may not reflect everyone’s retirement experience (as evidenced by the comments above) but I think the sense that “life is passing me by” is a common and benign reaction to retirement/elderly anxiety, whether male or female. Each individual finds their own solution (or not), but recognizing and stating the feeling is a healthy first step.

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    1. Thanks for understanding, Priscilla. I didn’t want to make a point or to be didactic. I simply wanted to lay out the feeling for others to identify with or reject, according to their own experience–and according to their values.

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  6. Sounds pretty unanimous. We all need to be needed. That’s why people rescued from a besieged city will long, paradoxically, to go back in: they missed being starkly needed, being depended upon, by others. They miss proving themselves, doing their part, being counted, in matters large and small.
    Luckily for Isaac, there are plenty of opportunities for doing one’s part…☺

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  7. It seems rather glib to me to simply reply/suggest he “get involved”. Yes that may help or he may find that it does not solve the problem. He may feel he is involved/giving back but at the same time he may find himself just as “invisible”. He may not be accepted by the group, his suggestions or help not appreciated, ageism is a factor in may organizations, etc.

    What will happen if/when he gets to a place in his life where “being involved” is not possible. Then he will be right back here again trying to figure out how to matter.

    When I was researching retirement from an emotional side (vs the financial side) what annoyed me the most was the idea that if you wanted a “successful retirement” you had to be almost as busy in retirement as you were when you were working. Now I have as much pressure to be successful as when I was working. Nuts to that!!

    I have given myself permission to be retired on my terms and not societies terms. I did that while I was working and I’m not going there again.

    So I say “get ok with being invisible, not mattering anymore”. Celebrate you are free of that crap. I do volunteer as I enjoy it but all it does is keep me busy. I’m not changing the world. I’m not influencing anything or anybody. Except for missing my physical presence, no place I’m volunteering is going to miss me if I’m gone. I really don’t matter. It’s wonderful!

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    1. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your response, Bill. I do think that mattering is a nuanced experience–the feeling and the actuality. And I’m glad that you have been able to move into a position beyond the need for mattering to work and volunteer groups, to feel free and happy with your freedom. That’s an achievement.

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  8. I have similar feeling to those expressed by Bill. Thanks Bill.

    For many years, I worked very hard. In business, I added staff that I needed to complement my skill set or to take tasks off my plate. From those hundreds of employees, I have one friend and his family that I cherish. On some occasions I run into former staff members, and have a little chat, but those recollections are just unnecessary to my current life. I care about my family, friends and hobbies with some participation in Jean’s volunteer groups. That is the reward that I have achieved for many years of risk taking, and it is a bargain that I find most suitable. The only counterpoints are the physical and mental limitations that appear as I age, and the realization that this period of relative tranquility has an expiration date.

    Some non sequiturs:
    Paul Simon’s solo and acoustic guitar version of Slip Sliding Away provides comfort when I consider the short nature of our existence.
    Based on my experiences, volunteer groups are not likely to likely to resolve the conflicts that “Isaac” is experiencing. Many of my contemporaries were used to being “large and in charge” of their organizations, and that attitude does not fit well into volunteer groups. I always felt that this would be an issue for our shithead of a president, and, indeed, he is unable to cope with dissenters or limitations on the issuance of decrees (besides being a disaster on every policy decision or position).

    Please keep up your thought provoking and insightful correspondence,
    Mitch

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    1. What can I say, Mitch. You and Bill have articulated clear and well-earned position. It has great logic, too. And I have no doubt about your honesty–I never have. You can’t convince others who do feel they need to contribute that they don’t–or that they can feel good about not contributing. Their discontent is a deeply felt as your satisfaction, though not as rewarding. Still… maybe some of them will reach your position after struggling for a while with their own.

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  9. Like Isaac, I like to be alone, but I also like to be involved in the world around me. And I like, to a certain extent, to be needed. What a dilemma! We all have to learn to accept a certain degree of invisibility once we leave the workforce, once our children are grown, and once our friends begin to die and leave us. But, no question, it hurts and frightens us. I think I am finding my way around this, and none too soon!

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