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where’s the zest?

How hard can it be to retire? Isn’t that what people look forward to after decades of toiling? No more creepy supervisors, weird co-workers, or nasty back pain. Instead, vacations forever, exciting hobbies, golf at last, honeymoons long-delayed, fulfilling volunteer work, cruising the seven seas, time with the grandkids.

Okay, I’m talking through my hat (English for speaking nonsense) since I’ve never had any such plans. Being unmarried without children, the stereotypical retirement fantasies don’t apply to me. I enjoyed work as a self-employed educator who set his own hours, published books and completed graduate work, travelled freely, lived on an island, and enjoyed the good life.  

Then, about ten years ago, after completing a doctorate I thought would propel me into my next career phase, I stopped working. No big bang, just a sense that I was done. And then what? To this day I’m still waiting for retirement to kick in. My finances are reasonably ensured, I’m in decent health, with good friends, meaningful volunteer work and a spiritual practice — and still I am waiting. Waiting for what, I couldn’t say. The only clue is a persistent voice from within, nagging me about being lazy and unproductive.

Found this in an old medical journal today: [W]e as physicians in caring for our aging population … require to know, not only the diseases which affect the aged, but also, the various requirements of the older group for a happy, zestful, useful later life … .

Happy, zestful, and useful, eh? What is it I’m not seeing? Anyone?

source: Robson, R.B. (1950). Retirement problems. Canad. M. A. J. , 63, 457-461. image:


12 responses »

  1. perhaps it is not “what” we see when we feel lacking of zest and fulfillment but “how” we see???

    perhaps it is just a subtle turning?

    I am really appreciating the “metta” practice that is part of my new sitting groups practice. I am finding it very nourishing, just what I need.

    • you’re right, carole, about the how of seeing. with this post i wanted to give voice to a deep sense of restlessness. this too shall pass or, as i suspect, reveal itself to my small self.

  2. ah p… this query reminds me of Kabir.

    “Are you looking for me?
    I am in the next seat.
    My shoulder is against yours.

    You will not find me in the stupas,
    not in Indian shrine rooms,
    nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
    not in masses, nor kirtans,
    not in legs winding around your own neck,
    nor in eating nothing but vegetables.

    When you really look for me,
    you will see me instantly –
    you will find me in the tiniest house of time.

    Student, tell me, what is the Beloved?
    It is the breath inside the breath.”

    • yes, nancy, the breath within the breath. the words touch me — but don’t sink deeply enough to meet my longing for ease. thank you for sending Kabir’s words … and for being there when I cry out. 95% of the time, i find, the heart and mind are separate domains, despite what mystics tell us.

  3. two more quotes to consider

    David Whyte – from river flow…
    Start close in
    don’t take the second step
    or the third
    start with the first thing
    close in
    the step
    you don’t want to take…

    and another poem, can’t remember the name

    … i want to know if you are willing to live day by day, with the consequences of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat. i have heard in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God. (2007)

    and my favourite from j o’d ‘when your soul awakens, you begin to truly inherit your life’

    with metta,
    may you be well and at peace, may all beings be free of suffering

  4. yes, nancy, much to consider.

    by coincidence, the 2007 quote you cite (from Self Portrait) has been on my desk all day: I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
    I feel heard, at last. Thus not alone. A consolation, however small.

    thank you nancy /
    and david whyte (see full text at

    • what i love most about this poem is the last line – about the fierce embrace of knowing of my sure defeat, i am not alone – even the gods know of this!


  5. I seems that the image of retirement you had in mind is very different from the one your’e living.

  6. First, so where is it written that doctors know everything about everything? Second, sounds like the ego is talking here and making judgments. Third, I have been retired for more than twenty years now and have finally learned that this last stage of human life is simply all about just Being.

  7. As a person who has been retired for five years, I feel neither happy, useful or zestful. I too, hear that persistent voice saying that I am ‘unproductive and lazy’. I often feel like I am wasting these precious years. Letting go of the need to be ‘useful’ is one of the hardest things I am facing at this time in my life.

  8. hmmm…. retirement and feeling “unproductive and lazy” and feeling the need to be “useful.” A while back in my life, I had an experience. I can recall it clearly, the place and time of day. I simply realized that I was “in the hands of God,” as I put it then. It was a simple realization, but it freed me from many concerns. I no longer had to “think about” (worry about) what was the right thing or best thing for me to do. I could act as I thought best and take the consequences (although the part about taking the consequences came to me somewhat more slowly). There are no mistakes in life, but there sure are consequences. And as I consider the experience now and my life now, I know that what I received then was a feeling of support in the world; I am not alone, I am not inconsequential (even though I am inconsequential, and the more I let myself know this, the happier I become), and I am part of life. I am useful, although often I do not know in what ways. I think that many people have never found this consistent feeling of support in the world, of being part of the world. Now, I know that, were I to find out on Wednesday that I would die on Thursday, I would look forward with curiosity and with regret over not seeing how “everything” turns out. (Maybe I’m not quite ready.)


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