Recently, I reached two milestones, both of which emphasized my age: my oldest grandchild graduated from high school, and I began my retirement. Milestones are funny. We look forward to them, focus on them, work hard to reach them, and then we do. We might celebrate them for a day or two, check them off our bucket list and then move on, focusing on our next milestone. At some point, though, we stop looking ahead to the next milestone and look back from where we came. And then when people ask us about our lives, what do we do? We recite our milestones: I was born, I graduated from high school, then college, and then graduate school. I got married, I had children, then grandchildren, I retired, and later I died. And we call that a life.
As I watched my grandson graduate, I reminded myself that he is starting a beautiful time of life. There will be new friends and lovers, exciting opportunities, a bright future ahead. I admit I was a bit envious of him, wishing, at least for a brief moment, that I had the chance to start over. Would I do things differently? Would I make the same mistakes all over again? Would I work harder or play harder?
That’s the great thing about reaching a milestone; it gives us a chance to stop and reflect and start anew, chasing new goals and experiencing new adventures. Sadly, as we reach one milestone, we immediately focus on the next one, without much reflection on the experiences along the way. We tell ourselves, life will be much easier, and therefore better, when the kids get a little older, or when I get through school, or when I get that next promotion.
Ann Landers once wrote, “At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don’t care what others think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.” That’s the problem with reaching retirement. It is the first milestone where we spend most of our time looking back, not forward, and most of us don’t like what we see. We remind ourselves of all our failures, and we think about the what ifs and if only this or that had happened. We analyze our lives and wonder if our life made any difference at all.
One of my favorite movies about retirement is About Schmidt.[i] I smile every time I watch the opening scene, where, on the day of Warren Schmidt’s retirement, he refuses to leave the office until 5 p.m. on the dot. (In contrast, I was out the door before 2 pm, and would have been gone much sooner except for a farewell lunch in my honor hosted by some very good friends.) Not surprisingly, Schmidt has a hard time adjusting to retirement. He returns to his workplace and offers to help out, but he is no longer needed. His wife suddenly dies, and soon he finds himself alone and lonely. One day, with nothing more exciting to do, while watching television he is touched by a commercial showing the poverty in Africa and decides to sponsor of a young boy for only $22 per month. As a sponsor, Schmidt is encouraged to write letters to his new foster child. At one point, Schmidt writes this depressing letter, that sadly many of can relate to:
But retirement can be an exciting time of life, too. Like any other milestone, it is an opportunity to make new friends, enjoy new experiences, and accomplish new things. We can take a risk, like the women in the fact-based film, Calendar Girls,[ii] where a group of retirement-aged women decide to pose nude for a calendar to raise money for the fight against leukemia. Enjoy this scene where many of the women take it all off (don’t worry, it’s rated PG-13):
Most people do not think an old codger like me has little to contribute to the world I left behind. But one thing us old folks can contribute is our experience, which might be the only thing most of us get out of life. Or as someone once said, “Experience is a wonderful thing. It enables you to recognize a mistake every time you repeat it.” I love this mentoring scene from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel:[iii]
That scene also reminds us that the so-called Golden Years can be a time of loss. I continually hope my wife and I die on the very same day, but the odds of that are not in our favor. Almost invariably, one spouse dies before the other. But you are never too old to fall (or stay) in love, or even return to a love from the past:
Warren Schmidt gets an answer to his letter to his foster child that helps him realize what is truly important in life:
Sure, generations from now, few if anyone will remember us or what we did. But leaving a legacy long remembered is not what is most important in life. The way we make a difference in this world is not in the milestones we achieve, but with the connections we make along the way. It is the relationships we develop with family, with friends, with neighbors, with teachers, and sometimes even with total strangers. A smile, a kind or encouraging word, a helping hand – these are the things that make a difference in people’s lives.
Newspaper columnist Doug Larson said, “If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there’d be a shortage of fishing poles.” I agree with that, as long as we are fishing together.
[i] About Schmidt
- Production Company: New Line Cinema and Avery Pix
- Director: Alexander Payne
- Screenwriter: Alexander Payne (from the novel by Louis Begley)
- Starring: Jack Nicholson and Hope Davis
- Release date: January 3, 2003
[ii] Calendar Girls
- Production Company: Touchstone Pictures, Harbour Pictures, and Buena Vista International
- Director: Nigel Cole
- Screenwriters: Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth
- Starring: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Penelope Wilton
- Release date: January 1, 2004
[iii] The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
- Production Company: Blueprint Pictures
- Director: John Madden
- Screenwriter: Ol Parker (from the novel by Deborah Moggach
- Starring: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith
- Release date: May 25, 2012