I must have been staring out the window.
My wife, curious, asked, “What are you thinking about?”
“I dunno,” I said. “I’m not sure I justified my existence today.”
It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, in Minnesota. I’m guessing a few people were in my same boat.
I hadn’t hit the ground running, but I had taken care of the chickens and watered the plants in the greenhouse, filled the wood burner three times, then spent the rest of the day working on a new book that, quite frankly, not all that many people are liable to read.
I say “working,” but I wouldn’t say I was a whirlwind of productivity. I’d pound out a couple paragraphs, then check my email, look at Facebook, see if any new headlines popped up in the news...and in no time at all it was getting dark outside, and I could start thinking about supper.
I told my wife, “Sometimes I think to myself that I’m 67 years old. Many people my age have been retired for years, so I shouldn’t worry about how much I get done in a day.” I went on, “And then, sometimes I think, I’m only 67 years old, I still have a lot to do.”
You need to understand, my mom taught school for about 80 years - if you include the time she spent forcing her younger siblings to sit in rows to complete assignments and the time she spent reading to people in nursing homes. When my dad was about 75, he started making collapsible wooden desks that equipped schools from Haiti to Sierra Leone. He wrapped up that project when he was about 90. It probably wouldn’t have taken him fifteen years, but he bought a backhoe when he turned 80 and used it and a chainsaw to rehab an abandoned graveyard on the edge of our farm, grubbing out the junk trees, resetting the tombstones and landscaping.
A quote I’ve always liked, except for when I hate it, is from John Wesley, a short prayer that goes, “God grant that I do not live long enough to become useless.”
For one hundred years or more, we’ve had mid-sixties drummed into our heads as retirement age. And, if you’ve been a roofer or an aide in a nursing home, that’s still more than reasonable. But, for many of us, if you pack it in at 66, your body is still in pretty good shape, and you have a long time left to coast, a long time to spend looking for something to do. Personally, I can’t discuss retirement, because no one I know thinks I've ever had a real job.
What we tend to forget is that when the retirement age was set at 65, the average life span of an American was 60. The expectation was that you would work basically as long as you could and die a year or so later. Nobody thought about quitting work and then having another twenty or thirty years to kill. The phrase, “senior citizen,” wasn’t used until the mid-’50s. Back then, if you moved to Florida, it was to raise oranges, not play golf.
I suppose I was thinking about this because a friend of mine died suddenly. I’m sad and I think about him all the time. He’d worked hard for a long time and was enjoying his retirement, with a wife, kids, and grandkids to relish. It seems so unfair.
My list of cherished people who’ve died far too young is getting longer and longer. It’s hard and painful and it happens to all of us, all of us who are fortunate, anyway.
That’s why I worry about justifying my existence. It feels disrespectful not to. It's important to get out of bed in the morning with a purpose. John Wesley lived to be 88, and that was in the 1700s when 88 was considered an extraordinarily long life. Six days before he died, he wrote a long letter to Wilbur Wilburforce, encouraging him to keep up the good fight against slavery. Brother Wesley was about a century ahead of the curve in thinking slavery was an abomination. I think about that sometimes. An old, old man, knowing he was on his deathbed, yet taking the time to write a much younger man, urging him to not be discouraged, to work even harder to accomplish a difficult task. Keeping his oar in the water, but letting someone else steer the boat.
It’s so important that we work, and laugh, and cherish, and celebrate, that we squeeze the last ounce of meaning and joy out of every day.
Because not everyone gets to.
Copyright 2022 Brent Olson
I've got you by 11 years, and yes, we keep on going on, and I've wondered why? What would I do without my writing and artwork? My woodworking and rod building. Tying flies when I have hundreds of them. My father lived to 98 and was still working until we basically had to shut him down due to his dementia. I often wonder the meaning of "retirement. A friend told me once that "you don't know a damned thing about retirement." Nope! Eloquently stated, Brent.
Love this, and agree Brent, but please - William Wilberforce is the correct name and spelling. I grew up in his home town of Hull, East Yorkshire. All of us were taken to his house, which is now the Wilberforce Museum, as schoolchildren. You couldn’t visit there and see the story of slavery and its dire effects on human beings without being deeply affected. He was an important man.
Great writing Brent! Great lessons for everyone here. Brent H.
Thank you Brent this was an outstanding message. So many important messages here.
You must have been listening in on my brain this week as I’ve been thinking along the same as my husband considers retirement. His job is fairly labor intensive, and his honey-do list is growing, so it sounds like win-win for him. Me? Well, having just had a two-week winter break from teaching, with a third one thrown in due to the weather (a dusting, compared to MN), the realization that without some purpose compelling me out of the house on a regular basis, my mind and body will atrophy while hermetically sealed inside these four walls So I’ll be working in some form or fashion for many moons to come; hopefully without embarrassing myself too much.
I really enjoyed this article and loved the quote
What a great job. I whole heartedly agree with every word. Thanks for your encouragement.
Thank you for this thoughtful piece.
One of your best columns!!!