A few days ago I hit day sixty of my post-retirement life. A lot has happened in two months. I moved, left my career and friends in the DC area, got to know a new community and neighbors, and started working with a volunteer organization. I’ve kept busy and engaged with all kinds of tasks, but every once in a while I think about that prior life when my value came from my job title and the size of my office and the number of people I managed. What is my value now? Am I a success or a failure?
Who am I without a place to go every day?
In the real world people work and earn paychecks. They get up early and put on business attire, they commute to work, and they spend eight or so hours in an office. We work so we can put on jeans and a t-shirt when we get home and have a meal with our families or meet up with friends. After work we watch TV and read a few chapters of a book, then we collapse in bed and hope to get six or seven hours of sleep before we start all over again. Friday arrives and we enter the weekend armed with lists of chores to do that we try to balance with an equal amount of fun and relaxation.
What is the point of this? The simple answer is to survive, to take care of ourselves and our families, to save for college and pay off a mortgage, to take a vacation and buy a new car. Unless you have family money or win the lottery, you have to work for a living. Workers contribute to the GDP, they pay taxes, and keep the economy moving. I don’t do most of this anymore. What is my value to society? What am I contributing to the general good?
Mostly I’m content that I was able to retire on the early side, to be able to have choices because I was frugal and planful and lucky. The first month I still got up with the light, used to rising early. The rhythm of this routine comforted me and gave my days a boundary. Then, slowly, my waking time slipped back and I cajoled the dogs into letting me have an extra hour or so in the morning. By the time I got up and dressed my former colleagues had already logged on to their computers or were reading the paper with their first cup of coffee. And here I was, lounging around.
If I wanted to I could watch TV or do a crossword puzzle or take a leisurely walk into town. I could go back to bed or read a book or drink coffee all morning. I didn’t even have to take a shower or comb my hair. I began to feel guilty for being so free. Work no longer tied me down, but in a freaky way work did tie me down mentally as I still felt bound to the need to contribute something useful. Much as I tried to extricate myself from the grind of busyness, its old song was calling to me.
Who am I now? I am neither worker nor unemployed. Thus comes the survivor’s guilt. I do not work nor do I earn a paycheck. I don’t commute or take my clothes to the dry cleaner. I have very little that resembles a set routine. My lifetime of schedules and expectations has ended. I now have the life I yearned for, so how is it that I am discontent? I was never a workaholic in the strict sense, but I lived feeling that work came first and play after. Can I feel pride in my days of idleness or should I feel guilty?
What do I call myself without a title? How do I define success in a life without a real job? Maybe the answer is simple. Work does not equal success. Money and power don’t equal success. In fact, maybe failure can lead to success. They say that money can’t buy happiness. Is opting out of the expectations of modern life an acceptable alternative lifestyle? Am I being selfish and self-serving by doing what makes me happy? Must we have an element of suffering to feel valid? Without the work and the career, am I good enough?
I’m not sure what the answers are to these questions, but I am certain of one thing. I can only go forward, not back. I must reshape my future in a way that is meaningful, productive, compassionate, and communal. Instead of earning I will be giving, instead of stress, I choose contentment. This philosophizing is an interesting intellectual exercise, but what am I going to do about it? What will this new life look and feel like? I decided to start with a routine. This is what it looks like:
- Get up at a reasonable hour, after 7 AM because who would want to get up before then if they don’t have to, and before 9 AM.
- Take a look at the newspaper first thing, even before breakfast. I still prefer the Washington Post, so I read the highlights online.
- Put up a fresh pot of coffee and eat a healthy breakfast.
- Get some exercise, outdoors if possible, such as walking the dog.
- Get out of the house at least once each day with a destination and goal in mind
- Keep up with old friends via email or social media
- Avoid stress
The last two items on the list have been the most critical for my well-being. Before, I didn’t have to work to keep up with friends. My friends were at work, I saw them and spoke with them every day. I met them in the cafeteria, at meetings, and in the hallways. We talked on the phone and emailed. Relationships were easy. Now, maintaining relationships requires work and consistency and thought.
Stress was my old friend. It pushed me to do better, be better, work harder. Now I try to be compassionate towards my own failings. Being without judgment is key, as we judge ourselves and our actions constantly. I’m not good enough, smart enough, thin enough. I’m a bad wife, mother, friend. I fight the battle against self-judgment.
This leads me to another list, of things I want to do better.
- Balance my checkbook every month. I’m terrible about this and have been known to let it go for years (shhh, don’t tell my husband!). In my life of no paycheck, I need to know how much money I have on a given day.
- Be tidy. When I worked all the time I didn’t care much about clutter. I was busy, so that was not a priority. Now I live at home. No more excuses.
- Get rid of stuff. See number 2 above. Too much stuff means more clutter.
- Read more. I belonged to a book club and tried to read at least one book a month. Knitting patterns probably don’t count.
- Eat more fiber. This is kind of a freebie, but I’m allowed one easy one. I’m a bit of a nut about my diet, but you can never have too much fiber.
- Get better at saying no and not feel guilty about it. This is a tough one for me as a can do person. This leads me to another question: is it better to have more time for yourself or to spend more time on others. How do you find the balance?
- Take risks. I’m going to get back to this one soon. I took a lot of risks at work. I took jobs I knew very little about and made a success of it. I traveled to faraway places and learned to feel comfortable about speaking off the cuff with confidence. What kind of risks will I take in my new future?
2 thoughts on “Survivor’s guilt: am I good enough without a real job?”
You clearly and with great fortitude and honor earned your retirement, so I say it’s time to play, to learn a new craft or two, to continue this fun blog of yours,. to write a book or two. Read a fantasy novel and review it (writers really need the reviews to help them launch their books)…and make a cozy quilt to snuggle in over the winter. LOL. Hugs my dear friend. You will soon find you need to organize your day to fit everything in and have much to contribute.
Hi BJ, thanks again for the kind and supportive thoughts, and I do need to read more. I like your idea. As you said to me before, where does the time go? We need to make the most of every but of it.