By Joe Casey
What will your narrative be for your retirement life? Well, it just might be taking shape these days, whether you’re aware of it or not. Like most people, I have more time to reflect on my daily walks. And I’ve been thinking about the power of stories lately. The stories we tell others and the stories we are living right now.
There’s a wealth of wisdom that often goes untapped. It lives in the life stories of older generations. Last week we interviewed Thelma Reese, the co-author of How Seniors Are Saving the World. She shared the story of Benita Cooper, a young architect in Philadelphia who created an organization around stories. The mission is to help older adults share stories of their lives with younger generations. It’s called The Best Day of My Life So Far, and it’s uplifting.
What Happens to The Hero’s Journey in Retirement?
Then there is the story we’re creating of our own lives. I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent piece by Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic Why So Many People Are Unhappy in Retirement?
Brooks notes that many of us may (consciously or unconsciously) follow a life script known as the Hero’s Journey. He explains the three parts of the journey: the calling, the ordeal, and the hard-won victory. He points out that for many people, it’s the lack of a fourth part that is troublesome. After the win, heading into retirement, the question becomes: What Now?
Brooks believes that the solution lies in letting go of the hero’s narrative. He advises developing a new script that better fits the realities of life in retirement. And he adds that others are watching. He concludes:
“If you’re still in the middle of your hero’s journey, it would behoove you to make tangible plans now to show true strength and character in the final phase. Plan to spend the last part of your life serving others, loving your family and friends, and being a good example to those still in the first three stages of their own hero’s journey. Happiness in retirement depends on your choice of narrative.”
Your Narrative in the Pandemic
Adversity tests us. It can be crippling, and it can make us stronger. Each day we see real-life heroes in different lines of work on the front lines grappling with the coronavirus. These courageous people are inspiring and often underappreciated. They are serving others bravely and displaying strength and character.
The continuing challenge of living with the pandemic is wearing on people. In recent days, I’ve overheard an increasing number of conversations of people complaining about life in the lockdown. I live in one of the hardest-hit states. There’s a lot of impatience with the pace of the phased reopening plans and criticism of state officials. The complaining was of the first-world variety. Restrictions at the beach. Regulations that were constricting plans for graduation and birthday parties. When I heard these complaints there were always teenagers and children around. I wondered what impact they were having on how they view this time we’re living through. What stories will they tell years from now?
And it occurred to me that we are all shaping a narrative for ourselves in this pandemic. And others are watching.
I was listening to the author Michael Lewis on The Bill Simmons Podcast, talking about how he has been impressed with how his teenage children have been handling the pandemic. He shared that their children’s attitude has been, “How are we going to beat the pandemic today?’
I’m not one who thinks the pandemic is a good test run for retirement. With one exception: it’s an excellent opportunity to practice choosing your narrative. What’s your choice? Complaining – or how are we going to beat the pandemic today?
The One-Legged Man
My wife Pat has been delivering Meals on Wheels for about 25 years. She began volunteering when our eldest daughter started kindergarten. When COVID-19 hit, I pleaded with her to stop her route for a while as a precaution. All four of our children, who are now 18 to 31, did the same.
Four weeks in, I showed her an article in our local paper that the organization had recruited local college students to fill in for older volunteers. She continued to be unfazed by my pleas. The following week, as I began my pitch, she snapped at me. She explained why she was not giving up her route. On her assigned route is an older gentleman Greg, who depends on Meals on Wheels, perhaps more than most. He was an amputee. He called himself the One-Legged Man. She said that there was no way she was going to step away from helping him. (Mike drop).
And that’s the story I’ll remember from the pandemic. I hope that’s the one our children to tell our future grandchildren.
What does this all have to do with life after retirement?
Well, the attitude we bring to it may be our most valuable asset, as Bev Bachel writes. And it’s forged in times like these.
Joe Casey is a former senior HR leader at Merrill Lynch, who is in his second act as an executive coach and retirement coach. You can hear Joe on The Retirement Wisdom Podcast, where thought leaders and retirees share their wisdom on creating a fulfilling life in retirement from a non-financial perspective.