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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Pihl

How to Find Connection and Purpose in Retirement

Spiritual leader Richard Rohr talks about a life lived in 2 halves. Both of them are necessary. One isn't better than the other, and they need to be lived in order. The first half is about establishing yourself in the world, developing skills, and discovering who you are. If I focus too much on personal identity in my writing, this is why. I am still in the "first half" of life, in the philosophical sense.

If the first half is about becoming valuable, the second half is about transferring that value to others.

Ben Franklin hit "halfway" when he was 42, but not because he died at 84. (Although, coincidentally, he did). The mid-way point in Ben Franklin's life happened at 42 because that is when he retired. He sold his business and embarked on a series of the most famous pet projects of any retiree.

This is the half of life when he discovered that buildings could be saved from lightning by use of a lightning rod, developed the US Postal Code, and later served as ambassador to France. None of these were particularly lucrative for him, and financial gain doesn't appear to have been his motivation. Instead, he used his wealth and freedom of time to make himself as useful as possible to his society. He became a "big picture" guy, and let younger entrepreneurs put in the legwork to make their own fortunes by implementing his ideas. His main goal was for his ideas to find their way out into the world where they could be of use to people.

Franklin illustrated this perspective in a letter to his mother, sent around the time that he retired. He said, "I'd rather have it said, 'he lived usefully' than 'He died rich.'" This is the essence of the second half of life. He understood life well enough to know that he would find the greatest satisfaction from giving to others, rather than furthering his own financial gain. Which is a lesson we could all benefit from.

In the first half of life, yes, go build your skills, your network, and your net worth. Establish yourself as someone who can be useful to others, and who can take care of your own needs. This is not a step you can skip. But thereafter, once you've achieved enough, allow your life to expand beyond yourself. Use your gifts more charitably, to help more people more deeply. Let everything that predominated in the first half of your life fall into the backdrop and become more focused on helping others achieve those blessings for themselves.

When second-half people fail to do this, they become isolated and lonely. The temptation is to do more of what worked in the past. Namely, accumulate more money, get more income, take more vacations, better vacations, live in a nicer house, drive a nicer car.... These are all subject to diminishing returns, or even reversal.

The danger is when you use your money to isolate yourself. It is tempting to live far from other people, away from their noise and problems. Likewise, when you travel, you might find yourself booking higher end experiences. These are often quieter, and you are less likely to be bothered by families and their children. While these experiences are more comfortable, if you continue to choose comfort and quiet, you may eventually find that you have cut yourself off from others entirely.

Retirement communities are not particularly joyful places. They are quiet, and you are unlikely to meet anyone who is unlike yourself. You have positioned yourself in a situation where you don't need anything from others, and no one else needs anything from you. You might think, "this is great! No inconvenience, no interruptions! I no longer need to rely on anyone for help! How liberating!" But that life soon becomes pretty empty.

We are not meant to do it all by ourselves, no matter what phase of life we are in.

I believe that a good life is expansive and joyful. When I have attempted to shrink my life, I have become deeply unhappy. Withdrawing from larger responsibilities made me despondent and isolated, even if I thought I'd be happier with a more manageable workload. Conversely, moving towards a "bigger" life has consistently led to personal growth and joy. In fact, I have learned what a privilege it is to be "inconvenienced" by others who need my help. It is a gift to be needed, and to need others.

In the second half of life, then, don't seek more of what you already have. Seek instead to embrace connection with others by being useful to them, and by becoming willing to depend on them as well. That is a great basis for forming the sense of connection and purpose that is missing from so many retirees' lives.

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