Days of respite are golden days.
Whatever else retirement may be, it is to be a respite—a plateau of rest from the press and stress of climbing life’s daily mountains. A retirement respite is a change from living life exactly as you have lived it in its earlier chapters. Retirement is a new journey in the pilgrimage of life. Though countless others have made this journey and will gladly counsel you how to make the trip, your own retirement will be a unique trip you’ll have to experience for yourself.
However, you’ll likely find some good pointers as you read here what I and others have mapped out and noted on our own retirement journeys up to this point. Of course, how you make the trip and arrive at the final destination is up to you. But when you do come to the end of retirement, I hope you’ll be able to say that the last chapter—no matter how difficult—was best of all and that the respite was golden.
Regardless of what has brought you to the chapter of life titled Retirement, it’s a good idea to take a sabbatical. The root meaning of sabbatical is to cease, desist, or rest. After lengthy, productive, and tiring work, people profit by a rest. And after a lifetime of labor, retirement offers the chance for changes of pace, activity, pursuits, and maybe even location.
What brings a person to the momentous occasion of retirement probably affects the person’s feelings and attitudes about retirement. After having a career in one field or a long-time job in one type of work, retirement introduces sudden change. So whether retirement comes by choice, downsizing, health problems, or whatever, the new experience of not having a regular job may cause you to feel euphoria, grief, confusion, anxiety, or something else. Regardless of why you retired and what your feelings are, the time is yours. You can choose to do what you want to do.
It’s okay to rest. God, who paused after His creation, gave the Sabbath for humankind to do likewise. And when Jesus was tired, even He paused to rest (John 4:6).
With retirement freedom often comes an emotional high. Enjoy that euphoric experience of the lightness of being. On the other hand, for various reasons, some retirees experience a sense of grief, puzzlement, or lostness. A sabbatical provides time to deal with grief that may come with separation from a long-term job, long-term friends, and having a place where you feel you belong.
Newfound freedom from the shackles of schedules and agendas may leave you with a blank page to write life’s next chapter on, and you don’t know what to write. You may just be exhausted and need rest. For some period of time, it seems wise to take a sabbatical. I’m not recommending indulgent retirement but a sabbatical starting point that may have some indulgence involved in it.
When President Jimmy Carter was just fifty-six years old, he was involuntarily retired from his position. He and wife Rosalynn were embarrassed, broke, despairing, and felt that their productive lives were about over—although they might live another thirty years or more. Later, President Carter wrote: “For a while we just paused and contemplated our lives. To pass the time, we laid down a floor in our attic, became reacquainted with our farmland, and jogged or took long bike rides through the countryside, stopping to visit at the homes of our friends of past years” (The Virtues of Aging).
So the Carters began retirement with a sabbatical. They didn’t become sedentary couch potatoes; rather, they departed from all-consuming work and rested by doing something different. For them that was a productive time. And since then, whatever political judgments anyone has made, popular opinion seems to be that Jimmy Carter is one of our best ex-presidents as he lives retirement life meaningfully and productively with greater variety than he ever knew before in all his life.
George H. W. Bush was the first member of that family to become president. And after one term, he was defeated. He and wife Barbara and family members faced feelings that were different but in some ways like the Carters. In the gloom-and- doom atmosphere that continued to hang over the family after the defeat, it was reported that Barbara Bush said something like this: “It’s over; get over it.” And the family did get over it during that sabbatical and rediscovered life and joy and productivity. And, of course, they were vicariously reelected when their son George W. was elected as the second President Bush.
In all of life, sabbaticals are needed; but they’re especially needed in defeat and grief. Though these two presidential sabbaticals were forced sabbaticals, they are examples of life beyond retirement from the White House. Further, these two high-profile sabbaticals are instructive to us regular folks who have an equally great need to discover that retirement can be great. There is more to add to the resume for those who want to add to it—after a sabbatical.
Both work and retirement started early for me. As a seven-year-old boy, I began selling newspapers on the streets of my west Texas hometown of Midland. And I worked hard all of my life until 1992. Then overnight I was suddenly downsized at age fifty-five—much earlier than I had ever dreamed of retiring. But I wasn’t alone. Between 1990 and 1997, twenty-one million others also lost their jobs to downsizing (Reader’s Digest, Feb. 1999). And since then millions more have lost their jobs through downsizing, job deletions, corporate bankruptcy scandals, the effects of terrorism, and economic ups and downs.
In my moment of being downsized, I was summoned to a no-preparation-required meeting toward the end of a workday. At the meeting, the corporate officer I answered to and the human resources director broke the news of my downsizing to me. No one had said anything about downsizing in our corporation, and I myself was a vice president in good standing: no bad marks; good performance, results, and relationships.
So I was stunned as the officer commended me on my fine career and excellent work but told of the board of trustees’ mandate for new leadership in our corporation. My twenty-two-plus years of hard work in six upwardly mobile positions in the corporation and my loyalty to it received a thanks and an explanation of my retirement benefits, which were certainly fair. I personally had nothing to do with the downsizing. A change in corporate culture was the culprit, and I was just the first of many to get shocked with the downsizing news.
As I had listened in silence, the numbness of shock turned to feelings of anger, grief, disappointment, chagrin, acceptance, and finally relief. Then it was quiet and my time to speak. I told these two colleagues of mine that I knew it had been hard for them to break the news to me. Further, I told them I knew it would be hard for them to give that same message to others who were my peers.
Then I took over the meeting by concluding it with prayer for those two guys. After my amen, I looked them in the eye, shook their hands, and left—and we’re still friends. I’ll tell you more about how this event that seemed to be a tragedy later proved to be a blessing in disguise. But for now, I’ll just share that I went back to my office, sat alone, and began to get myself together for a while.
Then I went home. A lifetime rule at my house has been that we don’t ever share bad news until after dinner. Our three sons were grown and gone. So wife Phyllis and I ate dinner and exchanged a bit of general conversation about the day, just as we always did. After dinner, I told her I had news that would sound bad at the beginning but would be good at the end. I told her I needed to talk with her about my retirement.
With shock on her face and anxiety in her heart, she asked, “When?”
I said, “Now.”
Phyllis teared up with shock, concern, and whatever else brings tears. Our feelings were similar to those of the Carters, the Bushes, millions of others, and perhaps yours.
With urgency in her voice, Phyllis wanted to know what we would do. Without her knowing details about the retirement, the question was a natural one. In so many words, I told her that I didn’t know over the long haul what we would do but that for the rest of that year we would take a sabbatical. And we did.
Whether your retirement is voluntary or involuntary, full retirement or semiretirement, I would still recommend a sabbatical. Some people equate a sabbatical with having lots of money or a good position or both. We did have some severance pay, but I no longer had a position. So perhaps some more explanation about our first-year sabbatical and types of sabbaticals might be helpful.
Before inflation could affect us or other things could bog us down, Phyllis and I took off for part of a year to do things we had only dreamed about before. We got a good travel deal and with severance pay went on our first cruise. We hadn’t been pampered like that since we were babies. The food was so rich and varied that Phyllis was embarrassed midweek when I asked in one of the swanky dining rooms if I could just have a plain old cheeseburger. They answered I could, and I did. For Phyllis and me, it was another honeymoon after more than thirty-five years of marriage, and we began to get to know each other again without the phone ringing or a schedule to meet or a place to go.
That was the beginning of our sabbatical, though your sabbatical might be completely different from ours. We had saved some money and were travel-wise in getting bargain fares. But the point of a sabbatical is not how long it lasts, how far or frequently you travel, or how much money you spend. (See chapter 14, “Outliving Your Money?” for more insights on this matter.) The point of a sabbatical is a rest and a change from what you’ve been doing.
When we got back home and settled in, I joined Phyllis for her daily three-mile walk in our subdivision as a continuation of the sabbatical. As we walked, I discovered that a vacant one-acre lot we passed several times each day was for sale. The lot was a swampy eyesore to the subdivision. The ground wouldn’t percolate and couldn’t pass county health requirements for building a house on it. But the faded FOR SALE sign had a phone number I memorized. I investigated the asking price, made a ridiculously low offer, and was surprised to have it accepted. So I bought the lot—much to Phyllis’s chagrin.
Then I began to improve the lot by cutting down junk trees, mowing grass, and “nicing it up” in general. I formed a team of everyone who had to be involved in improving and approving the lot for house building and in meeting our subdivision’s covenants. A thing called a curtain drain had to be installed to handle the lack of percolation. So I got that and everything else called for. In time, the needed approvals came through, and I sold the lot for a tidy profit. Today there’s a neat house with fine landscaping where that old swamp was. Now, that manual labor may not sound like a sabbatical to you, but it was a sabbatical to me because it was different and a type of rest from corporate work. Besides all that, the activity kept me off the street and out of Phyllis’s kitchen.
With frequent-flyer miles I had been saving, we took a trip to Aruba, where the trees are bent almost flat from the constant winds. We snorkeled and hiked and shopped. We drove around and looked at the wild goats and the wild tourists. Before memories of that trip had time to get dim, we discovered a $448 roundtrip flight to Madrid, Spain, from Nashville, Tennessee. Now, I had always wanted to go to Spain. So we went. Besides doing the tourist bit for twelve days in a rental car, we took missionaries out to eat wherever we visited and encouraged them.
Besides that, I was able to confirm an old preacher story I had doubted, about an ancient aqueduct in Segovia still operating today. The only threat to the aqueduct’s existence had been a short time of retiring it for posterity rather than using it. But since disuse was destroying what time and usage had not hurt, the aqueduct was put back into use. The story was true and contains a seed of truth for retirement itself.
In between trips, I became proficient on an Internet travel bulletin board and learned more about the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John than most of its natives know. Then we flew to St. Thomas and took the ferry over for an isolated week on St. John. We got a 20 percent discount off our hotel with the senior citizen AARP card. Again we snorkeled in beautiful waters, shopped for souvenirs, and ate dinner with friends we had met only over the Internet bulletin board. We learned what it was like to be without a phone, a notebook computer, or a pager. We were incommunicado for the first time in all the years we could remember. No one knew us, and no one could reach us.
We enjoyed the sabbatical experiences of our first retirement year, and they helped prepare us for a productive retirement. However, it’s worth inserting that sabbaticals are supposed to be recurring experiences. Further, sabbaticals don’t have to be long in duration, extensive in travel, or expensive in cost. They can be taken in your own backyard, so to speak. We’ve continued to find joy in taking minisabbaticals.
Though it might have sounded as if we were rich in that first year of retirement travel, we weren’t. Rather, we were fortunate to have had some extra income for a brief time. But it wasn’t the money that made the sabbatical; it was the doing something different and the rest involved. Since then, we have saved money from time to time for a week or two of sabbaticals. We joined a travel club and got special deals and access to good bargains that come with getting old enough to retire. And we’ve traveled closer to home and enjoyed car trips to visit friends and relatives and to take roads less traveled out in the boonies of Tennessee and Kentucky.
Regardless of money available, almost everyone can take a sabbatical of some kind—of some length. You don’t really even have to leave home to take a sabbatical. You can stay at home or close by and not travel far to experience a minisabbatical. In fact, some people who retire are so tired of traveling that planes and other kinds of travel remind them of work. So, to them, spending time in the garden or flower bed might be a type of sabbatical—a rest of something different from career work. Hiking, playing tennis, and moseying around, and a lot of other fun activities don’t cost much.
We found that minisabbaticals are lots of fun. You can take day trips to explore sights nearby and be back in your own bed and on your own pillow by nighttime. Or you can put just a couple of days together and explore your own region or state. We did that when we drove across the Cherohala Skyway from southeast Tennessee to North Carolina. We had only read about the Skyway in a magazine. On that trip, we spent a night in a quaint North Carolina town and drove on to Blowing Rock, North Carolina. That’s where Jan Karon, author of The Mitford Series, lived as she wrote, and we wanted to see the cultural backdrop for her books.
Closer to home, we have found sabbatical relaxation by working at something totally different from career work. Our three sons and their families each gave us one hundred dollars at retirement to go toward a toolshed to put on Godwin’s Mountain. (Godwin’s Mountain is fifty-six nearby acres we bought about twenty-five years ago but hadn’t gotten to fully enjoy because of career work and lack of time.) We felt a little guilty taking the hard-earned money from our boys and their families, but it was a gift not to be refused. Gradually, as I looked at display models of wooden sheds to be built on-site, I started with the smallest model and continued to look until I came to the two-story model. It’s a Godwin guy thing that bigger is better, so that’s the one we bought—but not for the three hundred dollars. The shell-of-a-cabin was sixteen feet by twenty-four feet, and we got it built on the very top of our mountain.
That was the beginning of both rest and work away from civilization—no running water, no bathroom facilities, and no light except by lantern or generator. We worked like dogs to make that place a good getaway, but it was pure fun. The work was part of our sabbatical rest. The main thing is resting from career work and doing something different, something that departs from the normal routine.
As Daniel Considine said, “Find out for yourself the form of rest that refreshes you best.” And I would add, enjoy the blessed rest without guilt.
“It is no disgrace to rest a bit.”
Many enter retirement without an awareness that they have become workaholics. In fact, it may take retirement for you to discover that you’ve let yourself become a workaholic. Psychologist Wayne Oates gave us the word workaholic, but throughout history many others have described the addiction. Stephen MacKenna said, “I find I haven’t the art of rest.” Ernest Hello wrote, “To work is simple enough; but to rest, there is the difficulty.” George Ade said, “One cannot rest except after steady practice” (Forty Modern Fables). Benjamin Franklin said, “He that can take rest is greater than he that can take cities.”
And as far as taking a sabbatical without guilt goes, I agree with St. John Baptiste de La Salle: “God. . .authorizes us to take that rest and refreshment which are necessary to keeping up the strength of mind and body.” Grenville Kleiser said, “Periods of wholesome laziness, after days of energetic effort, will wonderfully tone up the mind and body.” Almost everyone knows the truth of what Ovid wrote: “A field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” And as Dagwood Bumstead said in a cartoon after one of his naps, “The power is back on.” And in my retirement mode, I didn’t need an explanation.
Leo Tolstoy wrote, “In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” Mortimer Adler said, “When I have nothing to do for an hour, and I don’t want to do anything, I neither read nor watch television. I sit back in a chair and let my mind relax. I do what I call idling. It’s as if the motorcar’s running but you haven’t got it in gear. You have to allow a certain amount of time in which you are doing nothing in order to have things occur to you, to let your mind think.”
Henry Ford once hired an efficiency expert to analyze his company. After some time of observation, the expert gave a positive report on almost everything he saw. However, he mentioned that he had noticed that one man a few offices away from Ford’s was always kicked back with his feet on the desk and doing nothing. Ford commented, “That man once had an idea that saved our company millions of dollars, and if I remember correctly, his feet were in the same position then.”
Idleness may be only apparent and not real. The wheels of the mind can whir in silence and stillness under the guise of laziness. From my own experience, I can amen that it is important to learn to say yes to times of productive inactivity.
On Godwin’s Mountain, we have a large cave we love to explore. There’s no need to fear running into any animals after the first couple of rooms, because they don’t venture into total darkness and stay there. We see a few bats that have their own radar and come outside toward nightfall. Other critters are albino salamanders. They have no color and seemingly no vision. You see, living in total darkness means living a life without color, vision, or light.
Many folks live in a colorless cave of darkness without vision, insight, or perspective. They need a sabbatical. It can be a year, six months, a month, or even a week or two. A sabbatical helps us back off, evaluate priorities, get perspective, and decide how to live life—especially retirement life. For us to know how we want to live retirement life in the twenty-first century, we need to know the alternatives and be bold enough to choose what to leave the same and what to change. A sabbatical can help pave the way for good retirement planning and decisions.
A sabbatical itself is medicine to the soul. Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Rest is a fine medicine.” And Harold J. Reilly ventured to claim, “Rest has cured more people than all the medicine in the world.” For these reasons and more, I say, take a sabbatical when you retire.
Sabbaticals are not retirement. They are only for a season. Sabbaticals are always from something, for something, and to something. In the academic world and later in the business world, sabbaticals were introduced as recurring leaves of absence. The purposes of sabbaticals were rest, renewal, travel, study, writing, training, service, and acquiring of new skills. They were not intended to be unending vacations of idleness.
Homer said, “Too much rest itself becomes a pain.” Blaise Pascal wrote, “Our nature consists in motion; complete rest is death.” And Ovid wrote, “Alternate rest and labor long endure.”
Ideally, the beginning of retirement will include a sabbatical of rest, relaxation, and doing something different from what you retired from. The kind of sabbatical you choose needs to fit you and your resources. The value of a sabbatical doesn’t depend on its length or luxury but on a rest from the work you’ve been doing and a recharging to enable you to come back to a new kind of productivity. In that way, the sabbatical itself is productive.
• Reflect on all the jobs and kinds of work you ever did. Which were the best? Which were the worst? These reflections might help in your retirement projections.
• Recall your best vacations, holidays, and sabbaticals.
• What have you envisioned your retirement to consist of?
• Identify retirement plans you’ve already made and evaluate whether they’re adequate for living life’s next chapters that could last twenty-five years or more.
• Seriously consider a planned sabbatical (1) to rest from career work, (2) to get the feel of almost 100 percent optional time, and (3) to consider all the retirement possibilities that naturally begin to pop into a retiree’s mind while the motor idles.
• Keep a retirement diary or journal (1) to record retirement happenings you may not otherwise remember; (2) to retain thoughts, ideas, and plans that may come to you; and (3) to provide a log of what could be a happy and productive retirement and a retirement map for your children and grandchildren to read and evaluate.
Mark 2:27; Matthew 25:23; Matthew 11:28
Father, grant us a sabbatical “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife” (Thomas Gray). Help us to “rest. . .till the Master of all good workmen shall put us to work anew” (Rudyard Kipling). We thank You for creating labor and crowning it with rest. Amen.