Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 642(155) Chop Wood. Carry Water.

This is Retirement Talk. I’m Del Lowery.

Recall the line from Thoreau that went something like: “As I lie idly drifting on Walden Pond I cease to think and begin to be”. Let me repeat part of that just so it has time to soak in: “...I cease to think and begin to be”. When does that happen? Life is filled with problems and concerns. All of these don’t end just because we retire. Seems like there ought to be a time when one can just sit back and let the world drift by. But it rarely happens.

There was a time when I thought this might be the nirvana: drifting and not thinking. To get absorbed in the moment – playing music, walking in the woods, doing the ironing, washing the dishes. We lose ourselves and it sure feels good. We aren’t exactly drifting on Walden Pond but it works just as well.

Trouble is  we then wake up. We look at the front page of the paper, we talk to our kids or our grandchildren; we know that even though our days might be numbed for people we care about life goes on. The impact of social media on news and democracy, corporate power, and climate change may be a long range problems but they still affect us. We wouldn’t want to drift idly too long.

Life without problems might not be the nirvana. Drifting on a pond in quiet solitude may not be happiness for more than the moment. I’m reminded of searching for answers to the big questions in life that are the concerns of religion and philosophy: Truth, Justice, God, Beauty, and Politics. What should we do with our life? There are lots of questions. It seems that once we answer these questions life would be much better. The word “contentment” comes to mind. We might find contentment. 

For me, at age 39 after looking at many proposed philosophies and religions my quest took me to exotic Kathmandu . There is a human tendency to think that places far away have it better than we; the old “grass is always greener” trick. Eastern thought always had this beautiful word “enlightenment” that would bring peace to one’s mind. If one were, “enlightened” what else could there be?

I found Swami Darmyotti in the library of the very old red bricked hotel in which I was staying. He became my guide, or guru. We pounded up and down the various religious and philosophical questions. He would always recommend another book. He was old and wore a long white beard, long white hair and a long white gown. He took food once a day. His eyes were lost in deep set sockets and he slept in the library with a book for a pillow. People came on a regular basis to ask him questions. He listened. Nodded his head and sent them away with the name of a book or person to study and also with acknowledgement that they were headed in the right direction.

One day in exasperation I exploded with an explanation of my own personal philosophical views. Swami smiled, his eyes danced and he pronounced my quest completed. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that this was what they called ‘enlightenment’. But he shook his head yes and said, “Now I will show you my Katmandu ”.

We visited some untouchables – they were officially nonexistent in Nepal at the time but they were very much alive and struggling. We visited old Hindu temples. We visited impoverished businesses. In other words, after we answered the “big” questions there was work to be done. What can be done? What can we do?

A person can have their moment in the sun and then it is time to get up and get moving. When we first retire we can kick back and enjoy the moment: nothing wrong with that. But we are not yet dead and there is water to carry. We can blank it out and watch television, at least for a bit, but them something starts to well up within. We wake up.

Grandchildren do a good job of waking many of us. We look at poverty, health care and economic disparity, global warming, the current war - which every issue it might be - and we know that our future, our grandchildren, and our planet are in real trouble. What’s a person to do?

Even though we are retired and we have waged our battles there are always more coming at us. We may be able to take our retirement years and drift idly on Walden Pond more frequently. But a rock thrown in the pond, a cloud covering the sun or breeze that rocks our boat serves to bring us back to reality. Time to chop wood and carry water.

This is Retirement Talk.

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