Celebrating Work

Several days ago I visited a 90 year old friend who is suffering from cancer and a stroke.  As I entered his room, he was sitting in a wheel chair, a frozen and, to my mind, horrified look on his face.  After saying hi and kissing him, I asked:

“You’re not reading are you?”

“No.”

“What are you doing?”

“Thinking.”

“About what?”

“Chapter 15.”  It was the chapter he had been working on before the stroke.

I thought the exchange captured the essence of Daniel’s life.  As social and charismatic as he has been, his primary focus is always on his work.  It has occupied and nurtured him, bringing him equal measures of challenge, comfort, passion, and just plain engagement. He is an unapologetic working man, dedicated to his craft and, no matter how others judge him, content with his lot.

I have another friend, named Rebecca, who is consistently animated by working.  A few years ago she left her secure university position and simply continued her research and writing—minus the committees and the departmental squabbles.  When she isn’t absorbed in her writing, Rebecca gardens, which she does with much the same seriousness and total engagement that she brings to her research.  Gardening is work for her, and that’s a very good thing.  Rebecca tells me that she’s always been this way and sees no reason her focus on work should ever end.

I think that work has gotten a bad rap in our culture.  When we picture very hard workers, we imagine “workaholics,” people who are addicted, people who can’t help what they do, people who avoid family and friends.  They are said to be limited, stunted. Their husbands and wives often feel abandoned and comfort themselves by making fun of their “obsessed” spouses.  Listeners sympathize.  They understand how much the “workaholic” is missing in life.

Long ago, Sigmund Freud insisted that love and work were the cornerstones of the good life.  Without one or both, we would be alienated from our basic needs and drives.  Work, itself, isn’t a problem.  It’s when we work long hours in ways that fail to engage us.  Karl Marx called this “alienated labor,”  that is work that without meaning, which distances us from our true selves.  Many of us, for instance, work long hours without relish because we fear being fired or worry about failure and humiliation.

At this point, you might want to make a class distinction.  To be sure, many millions of people work under terrible conditions, seeking only the means of food and shelter; and  they would avoid this kind of work if they could.  It would be arrogant and misguided to speak for them.  But move just a rung or two up the economic ladder and there’s a difference.  Farmers traditionally hold fast to their work, with all of its vast variety.  We all know plumbers, carpenters, and mechanics who find their work sustaining.  The appliance repairman, who came to fix our stove a couple of weeks ago agreed:  “I was just on vacation for a week, sitting around.  I couldn’t wait to get back to work.  I love fixing things.”  Today, my barber, unbidden, went on and on about how much she loves her work.  “How about your colleagues,”  I asked.  “Most of them do, too, she responded.  “It’s just a great way to spend our time.”

I think that work has gotten a particularly bad rap for retired people.  The objection to work follows two lines of reasoning.  First, those who continue working demonstrate the workaholic gene—or germ.  They are addicts who can’t make a ‘healthy’ shift.  Second, retirees who continue to work are actually resisting rest, relaxation, and freedom because their identity is so completely wrapped up in their professional roles.

Yet all the people that I know who are of retirement age and still working, either in old jobs or new engagements, seem particularly pleased with their lives.

Lately, I’ve been reading a memoir by the poet, Donald Hall, age 89, and still working with energy and pleasure.  The book is called Life Work.  In part, the book is an homage to the farmer’s life lived by his grandparents.  He is at pains to show us how his life as a poet is not so different.

Years ago, Hall quit a tenured and well paid professorship at the University of Michigan to move to his ancestral home in rural New Hampshire.  He had liked teaching well enough but it took him from his greater love, writing.  The transition represented risks.  How would he support himself?  How would he respond to the isolation of small town life?  But the promise was greater than the risk: to spend hour after hour totally absorbed in his writing.  Absorption, energy, and enthusiasm are his measures of the good life.  Each morning, as he awakens, for instance, he can’t wait to get lost in his writing.  He will be hardly aware of the passing hours.  That is the sign of success.

Hall works in a state of he calls “absorbedness,” which is a close cousin to Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow.”  Flow is achieved when you are totally focused on a task, usually a task that requires you to extend yourself beyond your regular capacity.  The activity demands your full attention.  There are no distractions, no thoughts of what else you might do, what you might have done, what you should be doing.  Your mind is quiet.

Hall summarizes this state of mind in describing his wife, Jane Kenyon, a fellow poet.  “Her garden,” he tells us, “is work because it is a devotion undertaken with passion and conviction; because it absorbs her; because it is a task or unrelenting quest which cannot be satisfied.”

I have friends whose engagement with work echoes and amplifies Hall’s commitment.  One friend, a highly successful doctor and hospital administrator, retired early, partly because of the anxiety of so much responsibility, partly because of the constant static in his mind.  At first, Stephen simply relaxed, read, ran, saw friends—and distanced himself from responsibility.  Within a few years, though, he began to organize his reading, then to write and publish it in increasing profusion.

By my lights, he is back to work–without the anxiety that had plagued him for years.  Why?  I think it’s because the new work has been so freely chosen that he is not distracted by thoughts of failure, particularly thoughts of failing others.  Stephen seems to have found a late life calling.  A calling is a sense that the work almost chooses you; and when you are free to accept, even embrace the call, your mind is quiet.

I have another friend, Manny, who for more than 40 years, helped to build and manage a school for highly troubled children. It was good work that, for six or seven hours each day, fully occupied his attention.  In retirement, he has been able to extend the disciplines—Tai Chi, Meditation, prayer, exercise—that have been his passion for 50 years.  Now he pursues them for many hours each day, unencumbered by the boundaries of family and occupational life.  You might say that he has continued to work.  But this might be even more fulfilling.  Unlike the work he had done with the school, he is not pulled and tugged in many directions.  He is like the Zen Roshi:  When he eats an apple, his disciple tells us, he is only eating an apple.

My friend, Gary, was a businessman, who had his successes and failures, but labored in for decades but without fulfillment.  He was rarely able to bring the best of himself to the job.  He was often aggravated and anxious, and rarely at peace.  Retirement brought relief.  For a while Gary luxuriated in the freedom from work.  But with time, freedom from is being replaced with freedom to pursue his true love, music.  It is there that he can immerse himself and lose himself, or, in Hall’s terms, where he achieves a state of “absorbedness.”  Yes, Gary is retired, but he’s also working again, and that feels sweet this time around.

I know that my homage to work fails the subtlety test. I’m such an advocate.  But I really do think that work has gotten a bad name, especially for retired people, who are supposed to take advantage of the freedom they have earned.  They have, indeed, earned the right to relax, to putter—and, if they have the resources, to work as much or as little as they choose.  They are also free to work and work hard, which I am convinced is good for the soul.

Committed and absorbing work feels good, period, and when conducted in the service of a good cause, it feels even better.  Work is best when it is freely chosen and highly challenging, and even better when it feels like a calling.  When optimally engaging, work displaces the internal chatter and judgment about how much better a person you should or could be.  It quiets the mind.  Productivity and a quiet mind.  That works for me.

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Free to Be You and Me

I had long thought that drawing a strong, unbroken line dividing work and retirement was for those who disliked their work and wanted to retreat to lawn chairs, mixed drinks, golf and cruises, and for those who had created large bucket lists to make up for unfulfilling lives.  A haughty framing, wouldn’t you say? When people asked me what I was going to do when I retired, I said “I don’t know.  There’s such a dense cloud cover between here and there, I can’t see what’s on the other side.  I can’t feel what it will be like.”  But I had a notion.  I wanted to be very engaged by activities that would continue to add satisfaction and give meaning to my life.

Along with others, I anticipated retirement with mixed feelings.  We looked forward to leaving the grind, to the absence of responsibilities, the slower pace, taking time over coffee and the newspaper in the morning, then a long leisurely walk in the early afternoon.  Some of us couldn’t wait to take up the piano again, throw pots or paint pictures, travel to far off places, and take time with friends. We wanted to take on work-like projects and board seats just for the satisfaction they brought.  For others, more time with grandchildren seemed an irresistible lure.

But there were also anticipatory anxieties.  We worried that we might be bored.  We would rapidly become irrelevant and ignored by all but those closest to us—and maybe some of them, too.  Our minds might wither without challenge.  Then, too, many of us associated retirement with the nearness of infirmity and death.

Since engagement—being deeply absorbed in activities for long periods of time—was  my Valhalla, I assumed that others would join me.  By being absorbed in meaningful activities, the primary desire for more leisure and social life would dissipate.  In an uncharacteristic fit of modesty, though, I began to doubt that my way was so universal and sent a note to about thirty friends asking what had changed in the way they attended to projects and other activities when they moved from work to retirement.

Their thoughtful responses spoke of many—not one—solutions to the developmental challenge represented by retirement.  They also led to a discovery: continuity of character seems to supersede changes in activity.  Even while many changed what they did with their time, they all seemed to remain very much themselves.

Some were like me.  They found projects that occupied their attention and gave zest to their lives.  Some of the projects mirrored their life’s work.  One friend, for example, expanded her research and writing about affordable housing.  Another pursued her passion to fix our climate but did so with greater flexibility and ease.  A third deepened her love of literature—something she had taught for decades—by writing a book on Dickens.  In each case, freedom from institutional constraints, from bosses, pay checks, and from injunctions to be well behaved turned out to be delicious, even liberating.

Others turned away from lifelong patterns.  These are people who had worked very, very hard, often with great success.  Now they don’t work hard; they hardly work at all. They play.  Where before they were highly focused, now they jump from one activity to the next, almost without pattern; the jumping, the freedom to follow their whims, to be inconsistent, is what they find pleasurable.  Even as they defy their own need to stick with work and projects, though, they retain their characteristic intensity.  Each little activity is taken up with great care and concentration.  But they eschew long-term projects with goals, measures of effectiveness, and airs of importance.

From what I observe, this second group is composed of people for whom work contained a driven and seriously anxious component, which they don’t want to repeat in retirement.  Even professional success had taken a great toll.  They dearly wanted to shed responsibilities and to stop pleasing.  They are ready to be responsible only to themselves.  Sustained projects would plunge them back into the old cauldron.

There does seem to be a third type: those with shorter attention spans, who never could or never wanted to manage lengthy projects. One friend, for instance, dearly wanted to be done with institutions.  He maintains that he could have continued in his work without them but that’s hard for a surgeon to do.  He does not want to conform to organizational norms—or to any norms.  He chose early retirement and has become happier than he’s ever been as he grows more eccentric with time.

Knowing him, I noted that he does have a sustaining project: building a beautiful art collection and broadening his expertise in Asian and African artifacts.  He insists that I am wrong.  What he’s doing is just so much fun.  Even auctions, which others find tense, are an engrossing game to him.  He pursues his project by choice and in the style he wants and in accordance with the timing he chooses.  He engages and disengages as he sees fit.  He is free and that’s what he likes.  Much of his behavior looks very much as it did when he worked but he is the master of the whole domain.

I suspect that the desire to distance ourselves from our masters is what many of us have in common—whatever and whoever those masters are.  Some are external—bosses, financial responsibilities and the like—or creatures of our own psychic creation.  We want the freedom to make our own choices and to serve as our sole judges.

Character crosses the developmental divide more or less intact..  Whoever we were before we continue to be after retirement.  If we were intense before, we remain so.  If we had a short attention span beforehand, that is how we are afterwards. If we were focused before, we remain so, though in retirement, fearing the need to achieve, our focus may be in brief bursts of energy and attention.  If we needed sustained engagement with something outside of ourselves—like big projects—then we are likely to continue in that vein.  The post-retirement strategies we choose are meant to provide satisfaction and pleasure and to protect us in new ways from our inner demons.

At the same time as we doggedly remain the same, we also roam.  We roam from old consistencies, from the need to achieve, from the need for approval and external reward.  As we roam from old behaviors and, more importantly, from old injunctions, we grow a little or a lot more eccentric.  The permission we give to ourselves to be eccentric and the way we demand that others accept our eccentricities may be the truest achievement of retirement and aging.