Minister's Corner: What Does it Really Mean to Retire?

Chaplain Bill Simpson, Supervisor Pastoral/Spiritual Care

The following will likely seem a rather strange column right here at Christmas. I believe, though, that Christmas is about so much more than just the baby in the manger. It is about God’s unmerited love for each of us, love that reaches back from before we were born and forward far beyond our stay on this earth. Christmas offers a beautiful time to reflect, not only on the infant, but on the entirety of that love through every stage of our lives.

Last week marked a major event in the life of our family – After more than 35 years of service, my wife retired from her career as a teacher. As seemed appropriate, we celebrated the occasion in some big ways. We also celebrated my wife and what she means to us and to so many others. As we reflected on her milestone, I paused to consider what it might mean for all of us as we move forward.

There will be countless adjustments for all of us – financial, relational, and scheduling adjustments among them. Many will be welcomed, others may be challenging. I once knew a couple, both of whom were retired after long careers in business. They laughingly told me they were “married for life, but not for lunch.” My puzzled face conveyed my confusion, so they told me how once they were both retired, they found themselves becoming frustrated with each other as they tried to align their lunch schedules. They realized their daily activities didn’t naturally line-up every day, so they simply decided to be “married for life, but not for lunch.” If they were able to eat lunch together, fine. If not, that was fine, too. They’d see each other at dinner. It was an easy and effective adjustment to a challenge they hadn’t seen coming.

Of course, the meaning of “retire” isn’t limited to stepping away from full-time employment. It can also mean to send a batter back to the bench or to go to bed for the evening. And there are other meanings, too. For instance, if one “retires” from the battlefield, the meaning is more about withdrawing. As I gave thought to what “retire” means for my wife and I, I decided to look back into the origin (the “etymology”) of the word. And just as there are many definitions, there are also several different theories of its etymology.

Clearly, the word retire begins with the prefix “re,” meaning “back, back from, back to the original place," or "again, anew, once more," all conveying the notion of "undoing" or "backward," etc. From this, we can infer a sense of “going back” to something. For us, my wife will be “going back” to using those gifts that took her into teaching in the first place – gifts like nurturing and teaching. In her new context, though, she’ll be using those gifts with a smaller group (think grandchildren) rather than a class assigned to her. This sense of “going back” will also include a sense of going back home rather than venturing out at dawn every day.

The balance of the word “retire” comes from the same Romantic word group from which we derive the word “tirade.” Its inclusion in the word “retire” seems to allude more to the length, rather than the intensity, of a tirade. The original French word includes in its meaning the idea to “draw out” or “extend.” The entire word, then, includes the concept of returning from an extended experience or activity, an understanding found in each of the definitions above. What it doesn’t mean is “quitting” or “walking away from” something.

So, what does that mean for my wife as she enters retirement? For her, I think retirement will be a returning to her roots. God created and gifted her to be a teacher and nurturer. It’s not just what she does, it’s who she is. Retirement will allow her to spend the time she chooses investing in the lives of our children and grandchildren rather than being directed by the standards and procedures of public education. Along the way, I hope she will also be able to return to doing some of the things she didn’t have time for while working full-time. Things that bring her joy and personal satisfaction.

Whatever retirement may look like for my wife, we’re excited for her. It will offer her opportunity to focus on the goals she chooses, rather than being driven by outside requirements. It will be a fresh chance for her to be more fully who God has created and shaped her to be.

So, what might retirement look like for you? To a major extent, that’s up to you. Do you see retirement as a time to sit down and quit, or will you engage it as an opportunity to move back, to draw closer, to those things that make you who you are? It’s never too early (or too late) to give intentional thought to the opportunities retirement can bring and to plan accordingly. Given the breadth of the term’s definitions, you might even be able to find ways to “retire” (to draw nearer to who God’s created you to be) long before you leave employment.

God affords us unique opportunities in every stage of our lives. Don’t miss what’s available to you right now. Likewise, don’t miss what may lie ahead because of a misunderstanding about what retirement really is (or can be).

To God be the Glory.