The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: December 12, 2003
Retiring with grace
Post-career, trade material goals for spiritual ones, author says
By MELISSA JONES
Molly Srode, a former nun, a teacher for 28 years, and a retired hospital chaplain, said she woke up at age 60 and saw her life very much like a car that has a quarter tank of gas left. In deciding where to go with her limited supply of gas, Srode chose to focus on her retirement as a time for a redefined or renewed spiritual life. Although many are aware of the physical, emotional and financial implications of aging and retirement, Srode asserts that the spiritual implications require attention as well.
In her recent book Creating a Spiritual Retirement: A Guide to the Unseen Possibilities in Our Lives, she uses her own experiences to guide readers to include spiritual goals in their retirement plans. Srode and her husband, Bernie, live in Columbus, Ohio, and together publish the Senior Spirituality Newsletter.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as of 2000 there were more than 35 million persons over age 65 in the United States. A 2002 study by the U.S. Administration on Aging projects that by the year 2030, that number will double to more than 70 million. That study also found that people now reaching 65 have an average life expectancy of about 83 years. That means that even if economic circumstances now require many to work past the traditional retirement age of 65, most seniors still look forward to the traditional retirement experience at some point in their lives.
Because people identify so strongly with their work roles, Srode said, the initial experience of retiring is, Oh my gosh, who am I now? People often find it hard to leave careers that have been part of their identities for many years. Srode, who worked many years as a hospital grief counselor, said grieving is a part of the retirement process. Theres a real sense of loss in coming to terms with who you are, said Srode.
She counsels against immediately jumping into volunteer or other work activities. I have seen people go from Thursday retirement to Friday volunteering here, there and everywhere. I think that in any grieving process, you need a little space, she said. Otherwise you dont grieve, you just go from one active situation to another and you dont really get in touch with yourself and what you want to do.
She admitted that taking that time is sometimes hard to do when youve been going, going, going for 40 years.
Most people have continually set goals for themselves in life, looking toward the end of high school, the end of college, the first job, and the next promotion or raise. Were always looking forward toward the next thing, and were even looking forward to retirement, and then when we get there it feels sometimes like the end of the road, Srode said.
Loneliness can come to the fore in retirement. Many people had supportive and close relationships with their co-workers and miss the camaraderie. In my own case, I worked with wonderful people at the hospital, said Srode, who retired in July 1997. We supported one another and there was a special bond there in the sharing of the work.
Retirement sometimes brings a final attack of materialism, she noted. The world of employment often has involved competition, material goals, and a quest for control. Looking back at what has been achieved -- and what hasnt -- can sometimes be a discouraging activity. Srode advocates a reevaluation of goals and a switch from thinking about material accomplishments to thinking about spiritual goals.
She also advocates a reexamination of ideas about God. Just as children collect rocks and leaves in early life, Srode said many adults have collected views of God that have been locked, often unchanged, in a God box from their earliest years. Growing up in pre-Vatican II Catholicism, Srode said she collected the images of an old man with a beard, a keeper of laws and a great, omniscient eye -- in short, a great policeman in the sky. Only well into her adult life did Srode come to see God as a comforter and the source of all creativity.
Just as we bring old photos or mementos out to examine, we should also revisit our old God box. Srode suggests that many individuals may be holding onto concepts about God that, when examined under the light of our inner wisdom, are no longer true.
Srode said her book was written to lead people to look at spiritual matters from a different perspective, with the lifetime of wisdom acquired over the years. She does this with a narrative of her own experiences, lessons from her work as a grief counselor, and with photos, poetic reflections and questions to aid in thought or meditation. She asserts that hers is not a theological book -- Ive tried to make spirituality present, real, tangible, something that anyone can get hold of -- but a book she has written as a teacher and counselor, providing more comfort than challenge.
Still, she does not shy away from the fact that after retirement the next major step in life is likely to be death. Retirement reminds me that I do not have forever, Srode said. As people retire and get into the time of old age, they are engaged in very important work. Its the work of growing and learning spiritually.
Melissa Jones, a frequent contributor to NCR, writes from Littleton, Colo.
National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 2003
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