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Meaning

by on June 16, 2018

Meaning

by Marco M. Pardi

To translate meaning into life…..is to realize the TAO”

Carl G. Jung. (1875-1961)

I think one of the most challenging, and least prepared for aspects of retirement is finding meaning in everyday life. No one cares if I don’t show up for work. In fact, they would probably send me away. No one cares if I get up late….well, maybe my dog would register his dismay. So awakening is met with a question: What to do today? Perhaps, on a thoughtful day, that question will trigger another: Will it matter?

A few days ago Dana (you know Dana from her participation in these discussions, always brilliant, always eagerly anticipated) started a group email venture called A Positive Thought for the Day. As several people quickly joined in with contributions I watched for a while, giving myself time to form an impression. I was surprised by how positive my impression was, even if I can’t always come up with something positive.

But looking at today is hard to do without looking at yesterday. What were my yesterdays like, and were they positive, negative, or some mix of the two? Do they still affect my today? How often have you heard someone say, “When I was {working} at….or When I was {fill in a position no longer held}” and they went on about that every time you encountered them? You want to say, That’s gone. Get over it.

Yet there is an undeniable element of past achievements and lifelong devotion to a vocation which hovers over each retired day just as surely as old photographs and awards on the mantle piece. I have few photographs, for obvious reasons, but I have an endless supply of awards – in boxes.

My life has been dominated by Learning, Doing, and Teaching. In the two, and sometimes three simultaneous careers I had my Learning was partly for enjoyment and largely for better abilities at Doing. My Doing was often exhausting but usually it seemed worth it. My Teaching was partly for the joy of seeing the lights come on, partly to enable people to choose among alternatives, partly to enable them to avoid mistakes, and partly for the humans and non-humans who should one day benefit from people who learned something. But I firmly reject the I have the right answer and you don’t, so listen up approach in so much teaching. I always preferred the I found that learning was fun and I think you will too approach.

Most of that has changed now. Oh, I still learn continuously. I average a serious book per week and watch science programs. But I catch myself asking myself Why. I something meaningful if I don’t pass it on? Before now I failed to recognize how much of the joy I felt in learning was the anticipation of sharing that learning with someone else and seeing them light up with the joy of discovery. I have hoped that at least some of the posts I’ve put on this blog site were opportunities for someone to learn something and to enjoy thinking about it perhaps differently. Again, I don’t for a moment presume to have the answers, but I do hope to stimulate the questions. This is why the comments sections of these posts are so very important. I know what I say; without your comments I don’t know how you react.

Doing is a bit tougher to deal with. Frankly, I never gave much thought to what I would be doing in retirement. One of my careers is described as that from which one never retires. That may have influenced my habit of ignoring questions regarding post retirement activity. I don’t play golf, shuffleboard or other such games; my Doing left me a bit damaged for much physical activity of that kind. I can’t stand cards.

I recently gave almost all my SCUBA gear to my daughter though I could still do some snorkeling if I want to drive forever to get to a suitable beach. But I admit I don’t like the idea of kenneling my elderly dog. I want the time I have left with him and he is no longer a good traveler. And, after a lifetime of traveling it holds little appeal to me.

So all this makes me wonder sometimes what the still working people envision for their retirement years, and how they adjust when, as is so often the case, things just aren’t as they expected. During many of my travels I took the time to go into houses of worship dedicated to the Western God: churches, temples, mosques. I very much enjoy the architecture whereas American Protestant churches, with their converted warehouse appearance, are not aesthetically pleasing.

Invariably, the local lore was that one would find, especially in the churches, most of the old women of the area. I don’t know if I saw most but I did see many. I learned that it was common for these women to come every day and spend most of the day there. Why? What was meaningful to them? The easy answer, especially since so many of them were dressed in black, was they were praying for predeceased loved ones.

Easy answer. No doubt they were. But I suspect that, having found little to nothing meaningful in their everyday life they placed themselves in an environment in which it was easy to displace to another cognitive state. It was easy to “get away from here” even if the destination was only imaginary.

In an earlier post I mentioned a woman who came to me when she became eligible for federal retirement. Divorced, childless and alone, she was afraid to retire as she saw nothing before her. I told her to take some of her personal leave or sick days (she was sick of the job) and go to various groups that meet during the days. She was to interview them, not the other way around, because in effect she would be retaining some of them in performing a service for her: putting meaning in her retirement days. She did. She happily retired.

But notice something: “She”. I am curious to read comments from readers who have examined their local newspapers or whatever other social media they have to see if they, too, find that daytime groups are overwhelmingly female oriented. Okay, men historically have tended to drop dead not long after retirement. But, still. More of us men keep waking up each morning, albeit it with a WTF am I still doing here attitude.

Years ago I lived in Florida, known locally as “God’s waiting room”. In all my travels I’ve never seen so many liquor stores per square mile as in Florida. The city of St. Petersburg could have adopted a logo of an upright corpse on a park bench. Activity, in a climate which excitingly alternated between hot and humid and humid and hot, seemed geared toward tourists, not locals.

But other States, though they differ in climate and activities, are not much different from Florida when it comes to meaningful retirement years, especially for men. So it comes down to a principle I’ve tried to live by: Make your own meaning. And, if no one can figure out your meaning, well, too bad.

That’s all very nice, but it can sure be solitary. But please do not assume I’m writing this stuff with the hope someone will suggest a meaningful activity for me. I’ve had several days in which I’ve thought I should go back to work so I could get some rest. In the meantime, I’m keeping Dana’s suggestion front and center. For me, a positive thought, a good thought, is a meaningful thought. And, if nothing else, I’m glad to have the group with which I can share it.

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22 Comments
  1. Marco, I’m honored to have inspired a blog. I’ve already fallen behind in sharing positive thoughts through email. Taking a break at lunch to respond here (returned to my old job today).

    You have me thinking of Billie. The final year of his life I did little else in my spare time other than spend time with him. I was very happy doing that, and couldn’t have imagined leaving him to go away on my own. In fact, I left him overnight just twice in nine years, and one of those occurrences was for major surgery.

    I am happy you have kept up with this blog – my positive thought for today.

  2. Mark Dohle permalink

    Interesting post. I do believe that as we age there are questions that we have to face, even if they can’t be answered to our liking. I will be 70 in December, a strange thought, but not an unhappy one……Even with the health problems, aches and pains, I still fell happy and wonder what the next decade will be like. I find myself feeling young inside, but on the outside, well, it is obvious that I am an older man. I often have to be reminded of it, mirrors are good for that.

    I was taken by this statement:

    (Quote): Easy answer. No doubt they were. But I suspect that having found little to nothing meaningful in their everyday life they placed themselves in an environment in which it was easy to displace to another cognitive state. It was easy to “get away from here” even if the destination was only imaginary. (Unquote):

    Not sure what you mean by “imaginary”? If the older women are really devout and by that, I mean women, who live their faith, and are deeply rooted in their relationship with God, then old age is a call to deepen that relationship even more. As well as their connection with others. How do you know the modern perspective on religion and the faith that flows from it is right? Modern attitudes are often just accepted, yet a lot can be missed by that I believe.

    One day, I was having an intense struggle with emptiness,, meaninglessness, feeling without value, or substance. Then I the thought came to me: “This moment will never be repeated, how will I respond, will I open my heart even now to this ‘nothingness’, or seek to escape it, which from experience is impossible. So I made, perhaps for the first time in my life, to understand the importance of each moment.

    I do believe my dear friend, that we are here just to make these small choices, to embrace life, to understand how short it is, and how important our choices are for the formation of our soul. Such is the value of our lives. Of course, this is not a modern, secular, idea, but an old one rooted in not only the Christian tradition but in others as well.

    The NDEs bring this out. In one life review, a man was astounded that most of the things he gave value too were overrated. Then he noticed that it is the ‘so-called’ little things, his choices to be kind, observant, and helpful, and forgiving, that shone out as something very important. A reversal of values I believe. Sort of like the Sermon on the Mount. Something easy to read, but to live out of that reality, takes time, effort and an openness to the Spirit of Grace.

    I have found that each state of life is more important than the one before it and more demanding. I remember that when I was young (as I am sure you do as well) the old cliché, “don’t trust anyone over 30”. The message, life is over at 30. Who says? When we get older, we are ‘forced’ to let go of old ways of seeing ourselves, perhaps we are being ‘honed’, cut back, so something else can come forth. When we forget we are pilgrims, then we get into trouble. Aging, is important for us on the level of spiritual growth. It is hard, painful, and at times a lonely place to be…..yet if we don’t forget that we have an immortal soul, it can give some surcease to our suffering.

    You are wise, you know already of what I speak. The last years are the most important because we let go of what our culture tells is important, but in reality, it is, but there is something more, there is always something more.

    Peace
    Mark

    • Thanks so much, Mark. Your every word is always an inspiration. By imaginary I mean that the experience is intangible, ineffable, numinous. As an outside observer, no matter how well I know the person having such an experience, I cannot speak for that person’s experience, I cannot even claim to “know how they’re feeling”. Thus, imaginary is meant in the sense of personal imaging; it is not a pejorative or a way of discrediting the experience.

      And, addressing your use of the word secular, you know I am among those who firmly see the non-corporeal as just as real as the corporeal, if not more so. And, like the others of my perspective I do not attach a deity to the concept. But non-deist is NOT simply materialist. That’s a common but false dichotomy.

      I can imagine that a person of your depth and insight sometimes looks around in the morning at the fellow members of your community and asks yourself, Who the hell are these people?

      • Mark Dohle permalink

        LOL, yes all the time, people are a great mystery……some from another planet LOL. Thanks for explaining your use of the word “imaginary”.

        One question. Non-theist could mean that you do not ascribe to any theory of diety, or theism, however, do you believe that there is no underlying intelligence in the Universe?

        peace
        mark

      • Mark. Yes, as I’ve said in a recent post I do think the Cosmos is intelligent. However, I think the centering of the concept “intelligence” into what then becomes a deity, or Theos, is a human projection of the concept of intelligence. Consider, for example, the unknown and uncharted but easily recognizable intelligence of so many of the species around us. If we had to choose which of those species, including us, to deify would we choose us? I think so, and therein lies the foundation of our inability to fully appreciate others.

  3. Thank you, Dana. Having kept in contact with you through all that time with Billie I know you suffered much as you saw each day draw closer to the inevitable. This is yet another example of how difficult it can be to “live in the moment”, as the glib saying goes. I trust your memories are now happy ones

  4. Mark Dohle permalink

    Yes, we tend to create God, in our own image and likeness, and we know the horror that brings out.

    • Brother Mark, thanks ! and whenever I have time I do enjoy reading your comments and Marco`s. Always something to learn there, thanks!

  5. As I never had a career from which to retire (there’s real job security in being “just a housewife”), I have found that the search for meaning has been life long. I love learning, and I love helping other people, so maybe this has been my purpose in life. Nothing I’ve ever done, other than have children who had children, has made much difference to this world. None the less, I did find some meaning for a while in writing my blog, and always in my interaction with the people I have found on these “pages”. I hope that will continue for some time to come.

    • I’m glad that in recent decades we’ve begun to understand “housewife” as a career. The boom in divorce seemed to nullify that, but we are finally coming to our senses.

      I have a completely unverified idea that love of learning and of helping others has a ripple effect that goes far beyond our horizons. Certainly your blog demonstrated that, with the ratio of readers to people who commented. Yes, please do continue.

  6. Gary permalink

    I guess I am very much a materialist — not that I don’t accept other people’s expressions of spirituality (in the non-religious sense). As such, I have never really attached much importance to the question of “meaning” or its close cousin “purpose”. I accept that I am here as a product of my parents, nothing more, as we have learned from biological science that species are driven to procreate, whether snails or humans. We don’t worry ourselves much over whether snails wake up and ponder their meaning in life, nor, I suspect do they us. Although, somewhere I am sure there is a research grant just waiting for some ambitious academic to try to solve that burning puzzle.

    Now, that confession may make me appear anti-intellectual, and so be it. There are many other things in life that I ponder — ethics and moral judgments to name a couple. These are things that one can do something about. There is no answer to meaning — you have to invent it — and when you do, it has always been there for you.

    The other problem with purpose is that so much of our life seems to be determined or shaped by other people, who in various degrees, we seem to need to please or satisfy. Retirement generally results in you having to please or satisfy only yourself and it is a new and sometimes disturbing state.

    But i will tell you, at age 70+ I have almost never experienced the sense of ennui that seems to plague folks concerned with what their “meaning” in life might be. It is quite liberating. There is no problem when you wake up being indecisive about what you are going to do today because you sense that everything pointless. I often told people, after I retired, that I did not have any idea how I could found the time to work at my job when there was so much to do post-retirement.

    • Wow! Thank you, Gary. On the contrary, your comments are firmly intellectual and deserving of much thought. In particular, I wish to see more on the relationship of purpose and meaning. That one sideswiped me. When you say meaning has always been there for you, are you saying you discover it, not invent it?

      I’m glad your retirement is not being spent with a paper bag on a park bench, though I sense you would not reject a modified version of that at some nice club. In any event, your comments are meaningful to me and I greatly appreciate them.

  7. Gary permalink

    Marco. I did not mean to imply that meaning is something floating around in the ether waiting to be discovered. I meant your ability to invent meaning is what you discover.

    • Okay. I can certainly accept that. Thanks.

    • ” your ability to invent meaning is what you discover.”
      wow, i like that ! i also dont spend much time thinking about my purpose or meaning in life, and i kind of believe that all our many beliefs are just our own `stories` to make sense of what IS 🙂 (dont take my word for it though 😉 !)
      BUT, i know that someow `LOVE` does fulfill me and that seems to be enough not to make me wonder too much about my meaning in life.
      now the question arises `LOVE??`…what do we mean by that, what kind of Love??`. Well, i dont really know, but when i can make people happy, i feel Love inside and that fills me up. and i dont need a meaning in life anymore , somehow that seems enough to my simple soul. 😉
      i guess this is the only thing i know for sure in my life LOL (sorry, not a big philosopher here ;-)……)
      and when i `ll make my transition, i hope to be able to find Love there (or where is there?? haha) too.
      please, dont take me too seriously 😉

      • typo `philosopher` 😉

      • Thanks, FOAL. I’m so glad to see you back. Tried to edit your typo but that function is not working well.

        Judging from the responses to your publications I would say you have a great amount of meaning for many people. Of course, that is nice but not necessarily felt by you. I’ve known a few people who had great impact on others but felt empty inside.

      • Marco, I know this is not the place, but it seems I have no other way to let you know that unfortunately my emails keep coming back. I wrote you twice weeks ago, then I gave up. (nothing special, just trying to catch up 🙂 )
        For some reason, your server doesn`t accept my emails. This actually happens with two other people and all different servers, so I have no idea why.
        So I thought that I just wanted to let you know the reason of my too long silence. but I apologize for having to write this here… Sorry!
        P.S. By the way, of course I did sign the dog petitions etc 🙂 (Just FYI !)

      • Thank you, FOAL. I regret the communication problems and have no idea how to address them.

      • I know, Marco. Unfortunately, I also have no clue. but I will try my luck from time to time and send again (as always , fingers crossed!)

      • Mark Dohle permalink

        Well Said Foal. When people ask me what they are here for, I asked them what is their deepest desire. When we finish, you could say that what they most desire, is to be ‘seen’ fully and in all truth. Which for me is love, not some sentimental feeling, or emotion, but something that is stronger than death. Mothers, and fathers, come very, very, close to that. Yet they still do not see at the depth that we seek, I believe. The love that we seek can’t be found in humans, that is one reason that even the closest relationships, the deepest, the purest, can still leave us wanting something ‘more’. That more is ‘God’, though that word has been misused so much that it almost useless for many. I believe that we are finite creatures, with an infinite capacity to grow. So diving into the infinite, no matter how long we dive, we will always be at the surface, for our joy, I believe, is to seek and find eternally.

        Peace
        Mark

      • I need to clarify something I said (in the piece). I said “Easy answer” in sarcasm, not in fact. There has been some misinterpretation of that and i hope this clears it up.

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