“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive.
As young doctors begin their life in medicine, they often seek my advice, perhaps mistaking my gray hair for wisdom. In response, I often stress several factors that have guided me in my career: family first; follow your heart; persevere even when (especially when!) the going gets tough. You may not be able to control all that life throws at you, but you can control how you react to it. And remember that the journey is most important because life is a long race, not a sprint. Success at one point does not necessarily mean success throughout.
That advice might be useful at the beginning of a career, but what about towards the end? Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst said it well. “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning,” he observed. “For what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”
It’s clear that many older folks, retiring in their fifties and sixties, can look forward to twenty or more years of healthy living. The quandary is what to do with that time.
For many who have left a successful career, relinquishing that exalted ego strata becomes a challenge, even a free-fall from hero to zero. I’m a member of an organization nicknamed the PIP, Previously Important Persons, composed of people previously successful in their chosen occupations. PIP members don’t care what you did or accomplished before, only what and who you are now. Each of us must find meaning and identity in new ventures, often transitioning from a life of “Who’s Who” to one of “Who’s He?”
Differences in social or economic class don’t erase that crisis of identity upon retiring. Blue or white collar, the experience can be the same. The autumn of life can be brutal, characterized by mourning the loss of a successful career until a new version surfaces. When it does surface, it is often accompanied by new friends, as a person takes stock of who they are and what is meaningful. People of all backgrounds can experience this stress, this crisis of identity, of being recreated to pursue new meaning.
Whatever one decides, it must be an activity to look forward to each day. Drinking coffee and reading the newspaper are good for the first few weeks or month after retirement. As is playing golf or pickleball. But these activities soon pale for people who are still vital and energetic but now have a different set of values as they search for a life with meaning.
What is meaning? That concept is broad and ill-defined, since meaning is an individual perception, with no right or wrong, no gold standard. It’s just whatever fulfills you and makes you look forward to the day.
These feelings are so common, major institutions like Stanford, Harvard, and Notre Dame have special post career programs devoted to this transition, helping people reinvent themselves after leaving a major occupation that defined their identity and sense of achievement and gave them meaning before developing the senescence of old age. Many of us have lived a life so dedicated to achievement and success that we’ve bypassed the time to be intellectually curious or spiritual, to read a good book, or go to an afternoon matinee and not feel guilty.
My suggestion: reflect on who you were and perhaps wanted to be before you got caught up in the business of being successful, having a family, earning a living, and keeping up with the neighbors. Did you like art, maybe sculpting or painting? How about dance? Ballroom style at this point? Did you like literature? Why not try your hand at a novel or a memoir? Helping people? Volunteer for the Red Cross or your religious organization?
The point is that there are many meaningful things left to do. Find out what’s right for you and pursue it so you can look forward to each day with joy and enthusiasm.
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