The Soul of Retirement
In his book Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy (2017), psychoanalyst and former monk Thomas Moore offers us a great gift. Unlike critics who see nothing positive in growling old, Moore provides many reasons why later life is crucial to our development as human beings. Although every phase of life has meaning and purpose, the final phase may be the most important – as poet Robert Browning said, “the last of life for which the first was made.”
The Spiritual Value of Aging
Moore’s very definition of “aging” is positive: “When I use the word aging, I mean becoming more of a person and more you over time . . . . Your very purpose in life is to age, to become what you are: essentially to unfold and let your inborn nature be revealed. You let your ageless self, your soul, peek out from behind your anxious, active self.” To age with “soul” is to be conscious and deliberate in using time to become a better person – one with more substance, character and depth.
When most of us look back on earlier times in our lives, we do so with some regret and embarrassment. We may think about how we misplaced our priorities, spent too much time going after money, acquiring material goods, building an image, trying to impress, and failing to forgive. We spent much of our youth and midlife serving our egos. As a result, our souls did not have the chance to “peek out from behind” our anxious selves, much less find their full expression in the world.
Soul and Personality
What Thomas Moore means by “soul” is hard to pin down, but for him it is not so much an entity as a quality or dimension of experience. In his earlier book, Care of the Soul, he defines the soul in terms of how we feel and what we know that is beyond language: the soul “has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart and personal substance . . . .When we say that someone or something has soul, we know what we mean, but it is difficult to specify exactly what that meaning is” (1995).
It is helpful to think of the soul in contrast to the ego or personality (what we typically think of as our “self”). Spiritual teacher and scholar Gary Zukav explains that a personality is the entity that is born, lives a span of years during a certain time in history, and eventually passes away. The soul is the nonphysical part of us that is immortal and unaffected by time. It is a force of energy, a spark that animates us at the core of our being.
Zukav believes that we are all here in “earth school” for a single purpose: to evolve to the point where our personalities are in complete alignment with the energy of our souls. Throughout our lives, our souls try to influence our personalities — by intuition, hunches, inner urgings — in the direction of higher evolution in the form of love, forgiveness, and healing (The Seat of the Soul, 1990).
In later life, if we are aging well, we become increasingly less absorbed by our personalities and more alert to the inner promptings of the soul. Through time and experience, we have learned, in Zukav’s words, “what causes us to expand and to contract, to grow and to shrivel, what nourishes and depletes us” (The Seat of the Soul). With this knowledge, we can use the rest of our time to move with more certainty in the direction of the soul.
Retiring From and Retiring To
Retirement can be a rich and soulful experience if we think about it as a liberating opportunity to pursue those things that make us expand and grow. Moore invites us to think about this period as “re-tiring” — putting on a new set of tires so that we can move forward.
We retire from hurrying through life, doing too much, trying too hard, wasting time on things that don’t matter, and feeling anxious and worried about what other people think. We retire into a way of life that serves “the longings of our soul.”
Moore encourages us to see this period, not as an ending, which makes the most significant part of life about working and making money, but as a beginning, which makes the most important part of life about following the soul. This is a challenging new adventure for those of us who have previously denied, ignored or stifled those inner longings.
Moore gives useful advice on how to create a “soulful retirement.” First, we need to recognize the values of the soul, which expresses itself through beauty, art and music, contemplation, deeply felt experiences, meaningful relationships (with other people, with animals, with the environment), knowledge that enriches and sustains, a sense of home, relaxation and comfort, a sense of place and community, and the feeling of spiritual peace.
How might we best use our time in retirement to experience these values? One thing we can do is strike a healthy balance between work (the things we have to do for practical reasons) and play (the things we want to do for pleasure and self-expression). In seeking this balance, we “discover the paradoxical playful seriousness of life and find out what really matters” (Ageless Soul).
Balancing playfulness and seriousness is another way of saying that we need to integrate the young and old aspects of ourselves. The youthful part of us is curious, energetic, and hopeful, while the mature part keeps us on a moderate course that involves concern for others. Soulful activities, then, might call forth humor, playfulness, and joy (youthful energies) while we use our knowledge and experience to serve others (mature energies).
To find soulful things to do in retirement, Moore suggests that we search within ourselves – through reflection, contemplation, meditation or prayer – to determine what will add substance to our lives. For example, if you want to travel, go someplace that has deep meaning for you. If you want to volunteer, do something that speaks directly to your strongest held values. If you want to take up a hobby, choose something that will open new avenues for self-exploration.
Sometimes, just by reading about soulful activities, we feel inspired. What is your inner voice telling you right now? How might you use your later years to pursue the longings of your soul?
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a researcher, writer and retired English professor. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. (See Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Lifestory Writing, 2000 and Endnotes: An Intimate Look at the End of Life, 2008). Most recently, as a hospice volunteer whose 98-year-old mother is a hospice patient, she has been exploring the meaning of death and dying. In our series on “Heart and Soul,” she will consider how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.