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.”