Are You Ageist About Yourself?
Retire or Not?
Zweig’s book has a great chapter titled “Retirement as a Divine Messenger,” which will be my focus here. It covers the whole should-I-retire-or-not theme that many older adults confront as we enter our sixties and beyond and make decisions about our work lives.
If you can get over the religious-sounding “Divine Messenger” assertion and simply look at this topic relative to your inner self taking a closer look at the dimensions of your past and how you are paying attention to the present as it relates to work and retirement, I think you’ll find some calming peace of mind here – at least that is how I felt after reading this book and this chapter more specifically.
Facing Your Shadows
Zweig writes about the “Shadow” theories professed by Carl Jung and applies them to the big retirement question. “The Shadow is that part of us that lies beneath or behind the light of awareness. It contains our rejected, unacceptable traits and feelings. It also contains our hidden gifts and talents that have remained unexpressed or unlived. As Jung put it, the essence of the Shadow is pure gold.”
In short, the Shadow is our dark side lying dormant and avoided in our unconscious. If we let it surface to our conscious awareness and toil with it and examine it (an uncomfortable process), instead of suppressing it all the time, we come closer to our true essence, to our soulful purpose (the gold). This true inner self is not our ego. It is our soul. “The soul is not here to be right or even to be rid of suffering. The soul is here only to learn - that is to gain awareness,” Zweig writes.
The Fish that Got Away, or Not
The chapter on retirement begins with an excerpt from Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea.” We see the elderly fisherman drifting further out into the sea. He’s feeling frustrated, like a failure, because he has not caught anything in 84 days. Suddenly he hooks a giant Marlin. “The fisherman grips the rope, wraps it around his shoulders, battling the speed and weight of the fish. The man’s hands are torn and bleeding, but he can’t let go. ‘I wish I could see what I’m up against. Come out and face me,’ he pleads. He speaks to the great fish, as if in prayer. ‘I’m stronger than you,’ he says, again and again. ‘I love and respect you, but I will kill you.'”
How does this relate to the prospect of retiring? The old man’s experience with the Marlin symbolizes our battles with the big question. “What would it mean for this fisherman to stop being a fisherman? What would it mean to put down the spear, appreciate the beauty of the great fish, or simply allow it to reenter the depths and live its life?” Zweig asks, adding that “he fears facing his mortality. His inner ageist tells him that if he cannot catch fish, he has no worth.” Those two words “inner ageist” represent the Shadow character that this chapter reflects on, and we all have our own unique personal relationship with that Shadow character.
Can you let yourself go from being a doer all the time, a person who must maintain a certain heroic-like self-image? Can you let go of that? Will your ego allow you to let go of that? Can you come to grips with the fact that you are now in a transitional phase of life, moving into a new focus on your inner being - a new focus on becoming a wise elder working for the common good, taking more time discovering your soul and becoming more consciously aware and working out of the blockages that still reside in your personal Shadow world that you have been avoiding for most of your life? In the end, this entire process of confronting your inner ageist becomes a “calling” to do good, to have more purpose and meaning, to point your arrow toward soul over role.
Not everyone answers the call.
Heeding the Call and Asking the Right Question
“Using self-observation, we can engage in retirement as spiritual practice. We can start to orient toward our inner lives and to notice the shadow characters that are either refusing the call to retire or romanticizing the call,” Zweig writes. “We can witness these obstacles, rather than obey them. And, perhaps, we can heed the call of the soul as it urges us to a new stage of life—new beginnings or aging from the inside out.”
And what about older adults who cannot retire for financial reasons? There are many of us – some 40 percent by many estimates. “For those in such dire financial circumstances, to retire or not to retire may not be the right question. How we retire, and how we imagine retirement, may be more important than when we retire,” Zweig explains, adding that we need to “learn to be more present with what is, rather than resisting or resenting what we cannot change.” By taking this approach, “we may be able to discover the hidden gifts of continuing work: a community that prevents isolation, a meaning besides money, a contribution that connects us to something larger. By connecting outer work to inner work, we may have a surprisingly new experience: the beginning of the internal shift from role to soul, which is not dependent on outer circumstances.”