Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 228 More questions than answers

"Why" has to be among the first words we learn. Little children have a way of repeating it over and over until we just wind up saying, "It just is. I don't know why.” It is strange how this simple exchange seems to hold over the years. No matter our reading, no matter our degrees, no matter our experience, we seem to continually come back to this simple conclusion, "I don't why. It just is."

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

Oh, we have answers. Some answers. Earnest Becker wrote a book many years ago entitled The Denial of Death. I loved that book. I probably read it three or four times. The pages were falling out last time I saw it. He was a psychologist/philosopher at the University of British Columbia at the time of the writing. I'm sure I have forgotten most of what he said but one thing has always followed me.

He claimed that all of the answers were in. That we knew where we came from, that we knew where we were going. He claimed we were awash in truth. We are drowning in knowledge. Our problem is now separating the wheat from the chaff or truth from fiction. I thought he was correct then and I still do. That doesn't mean that we now have the answers. It just means that we have the answers to those questions: we know where we came from and we know where we are going. The answers may not be the ones we would like, but they are the answers.

Interestingly enough, when those answers are accepted, the questions themselves seem to fade from importance. They quickly become replaced with other questions. Sort of like those first questions from our children: Where do chickens come from? Why is the sky blue? Why can birds fly? What makes it rain? Who made the car? Who made the sun? Etc.  The questions pop up like wildflowers or weeds.

The goal posts continually shift. We want to know how to tie our shoes, do chemistry, build a chair, fly a plane or bake a pie. Answers continue to follow the questions. Thank goodness. We learn to type, to perform an operation, clean the bathroom or fill out a tax form. We learn how to get a job, raise a child and develop a relationship. We also learn to close our eyes, to avert our eyes, to listen selectively, to read selectively, to ignore what we don't like. We learn to stop asking questions. We internalize the old adage, "I don't know why. It just is."

Why the division between rich and poor, powerful and neglected, acceptable and the rejected, the haves and the have-nots? Do they remain questions because we don't know the answers or we don't like the answers. We respond, "It just is," or "It has always been that way". We learn to accept some situations as beyond our understanding or out of our control. We move on.
Life makes severe demands for many years on our time and energy. We are consumed with providing for our very existence; ours and our children's. We somehow work through providing answers to the daily demands. Then we retire.

Once again, the questions change. What should I do with my retirement? My life? What is important? I might choose to ignore the questions as much as possible. I might choose a life of gin and tonic. I might choose a life of looking backwards. "What have I done with my life?"  might become the focus of my retirement. I might choose to spend my future looking backwards.

Answers and questions. The answers continue to pile up and new questions continue to slide out in front of us. Seems like the older we get the more we realize the validity of the young child's questioning. Why? Why? Why?

Bertrand Russell, the famous British mathematician and philosopher of the twentieth century, started to publish fiction in his later life (he lived into his nineties). An interviewer asked him about this strange trajectory. He responded that he sees nothing unusual in his efforts since, "I have been involved in fiction all of my life.” How could he say that? What does that mean for math and philosophy?   

Maybe retirement is the time in life to take Henry David Thoreau's words to heart: "Sometimes, as I drift idly on Walden Pond I cease to live and begin to be".

End of questions. End of answers. 

This is Retirement Talk.


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