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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Who Am I Now: The Challenge of Retirement

 Often when we meet someone for the first time one of the first questions we ask each other is: What do you do for a living? But is this who we are?  Well lets see, hum…  “I teach psychology at a university.  Does this mean I’ve made my work my identity? After all I’ve been doing it for almost forty years and I’ve enjoyed the self-sameness and relationships with other faculty members on one hand and students on the other.  Even though I have maintained a continuity of personal character, at the core of things, I don’t think I am what I do for a living. It helps pay the mortgage and other expenses and most of the time I enjoy it.  But it’s not who I am.
Well then who am I? Am I a husband, a father, a Canadian Citizen? Think of all the labels that others attribute to us as well as those that we give ourselves.  They may mean a lot to us and we are likely to become attached to them.  Am I who I have been “identified” with as I was growing up? For instance labels I was given? “You’re a good boy”  “You’re strong” or on the other end “you’re a bad boy and a pain in the...” What labels were you pasted with while you were growing up?
It appears that our cat, Ella, does not have these problems; Her main concerns are food, sleep, and having our attention. She is attached to us and does not hesitate to rub herself against our legs when she seeks attention or to complain when she’s hungry. But I don’t imagine that she wonders about who she is.  She lives in the here and now.
I recently wrote a poem on my blog entitled: Me is We. What I meant to say in poem is that I am more complex that my ego accepts.  It basically pays attention to the “good” things. So as I pay attention to the thoughts that continually emerge from within; some of which are positive and some quite negative, all must be accepted as part of my ego.  But my ego is not me!
We can consider our ego as something that is wound up in activities, self-attachments and self-labels with a focus so narrow that we are often oblivious to what’s happening in the real world around us. 
When I retire next year, a major part of my ego will be challenged. How well I will adjust to retirement depends on my willingness to accept major changes in my life circumstances. Retirement needn’t be seen as a bad thing. It can provide a major shock that awakens us to the surrounding reality or we can plan carefully and experience a less tense transition. In either case it’s a major change in our lives.
I think we should remember that much of whom we “are” has been assigned to us and reinforced by others starting with our parents.  Retirement is a good time to drop the labels and be who we really are.  I think this may be connected with the process of elder wisdom, which concentrates on reevaluating what behavior is really important in the here and now and resolving the conflict between integrity and despair
Let me assure you that I struggle with these thoughts everyday, some days more successfully than others. When I look around and see things without the urge to label them I can think about retirement without becoming anxious.


  1. You're quite right to be thinking about your "identity" after retirement. So many newly retired people suffer emotionally because they face an identity crisis. Simply being aware of the potential problem can be helpful. Bill

  2. Thank's Bill,
    I intend to look further into this. My thought is to compare "western" and "eastern" views of identity and attachment.