It’s hard to start a reflection intended for a parish website with a four-letter word. You might even say risky. But this week “work” is on my mind. Yesterday, for the first time in 40+ years I walked out of work with no intention of coming back. I am officially “retired”.
I used to like to say, “Work fascinates me; I could watch it for hours.” It is obvious that retirement fascinates people too. For the last month especially, I don’t think I passed anyone at work who didn’t ask, “Are you getting excited about retirement?”, or “Are you counting the days?” I must admit that, internally at least, I was thinking that I was counting the days and getting excited about the next time someone passed me and didn’t ask about my impending retirement.
We live in a society that many times measures the worth of someone to society by what and how much they produce. The first question, at least among men, that gets asked when meeting someone new is, “So, what do you do for a living?” Even St. Paul told the Thessalonians, “Those who will not work, should not eat.” And when he talked about his role in society, he spoke about his tent making skills as well as his preaching skills. So, how will I feel when answering that next inquiry about my job when I answer that I am retired? – I don’t “do” any work.
My parents grew up, literally were growing up, or becoming young adults in the great depression. They remembered the rag man, the tinker and the ice man – all icons of a yesteryear – all remembered by their occupation, if not by their name. They were grateful for work as good jobs, meaning good-paying jobs were hard to come by. My own family history is almost two distinct histories. My older siblings remember the lean years when getting a new pair of socks for Christmas was as good as treasure. About the time that I was born my father landed a job at one of the local paper mills. The steady income had its impact. When I grew up there were store-bought toys under the tree on Christmas morning, and when I was four years old we moved into the only house my parents ever owned. My older siblings are still somewhat jealous of how good the younger ones had it. The younger ones, at least me, recognize that there was a closeness in the tougher times that we didn’t have.
My three oldest brothers contributed to the family income by the time they were in their early teens. I have heard the stories of picking flats of strawberries for a nickel for the local fruit market. I remember watching them roll newspapers that they delivered. My brother Gary washed dishes at St. Vincent Hospital in addition to his paper route. I think that’s why my two oldest brothers, both well past retirement age, still work at least part time. To them, it is what a man does. A real man isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. There is an honesty in that sentiment, a sense of taking care of the needs of the other. I suspect they wonder a bit about me – the product of softer times.
I got a great deal of satisfaction from my job. It was important work. I was good at it. I felt the Holy Spirit called me, and led me to that job. And I hear the Holy Spirit telling me to step down. I believe he has something different in store for me. Of course, you don’t retire from being a deacon. That is a lifetime commitment. There is always a spiritual need to help someone with. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel my worth being diminished. I do know that I spent my first morning of retirement paddling my kayak around Loon Lake. No cash value in spending time that way. The sunshine felt good.
PS It is three years already since I wrote this piece, which was originally posted on the Quad Parish website. I have grown quite comfortable with my retirement status. My wife and I just returned from several days of an intense nature appreciation session along the Lake Superior shoreline. Such an experience is known as a ‘vacation’ to the hard workers out there. God bless you all!