QUALITY VS. QUANTITY OF LIFE
Hal Pepinsky, email@example.com, pepinsky.blogspot.com
November 30, 2009
Suddenly in retirement, I have time on my hands. Whenever I run into folks who haven’t seen me since retirement, I keep getting asked what I do with my day and what my retirement plans are.
Since a 1987 article on “Violence as Unresponsiveness,” I have postulated that entropy or heat or friction in social relations increases as participants become fixated on achieving substantive goals. I postulate that peacemaking entailing participants’ letting go of attachments to outcome. I have found that as I have managed to let go of goal attachment in my own relations, my life has become enriched. For instance, I have by chance moved in with my wife in the town where my mom still lives in a house I grew up in. That would not have happened had I not been prepared to move wherever Jill worked when I retired, and had she not applied for a job she thought was beyond her reach but applied anyway. I have come to believe that serendipity happens in the spaces where I leave outcomes of my human encounters to chance. That is counter-intuitive especially to those who like me have aimed to become lawyers. Hence, hard as it is for some of my friends to think I really mean it, I am as determined as ever to keep my planning to a minimum. I’m lucky: I am able after 11 years once again able to live with my closest companion, close to my surviving parent, in economic security.
I pick up the concern from friends that with all my free time, I am at risk of dying of drug-enhanced loneliness. I appreciate their concern. I’m sure they are asking me about their worst fears for their own retired futures. I recently saw a guy I had gone to grad school with who is around 70. He told me he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he gave up professing criminal justice. I recognize the fear. For any concerned friend who reads this, know that I’m not lonely and relatively contented and secure as I write.
As I anticipated retirement, I reached the conclusion that a moment in a lifetime can make the meaning of one’s life as one faces death more meaningful than having lived honorably, in and by the service of others, for over a hundred years. I reached this conclusion during roughly a decade from 1991 when my late friend Mable introduced me to singing with her in nursing homes, and in the accompanying funerals she took me to. At the time I made a particular point of telling Jill and our Katy how blessed I felt by my life with them, and that I was prepared to face death already having lived, as I put it to them, many lives in a lifetime. I now respond to pressure to do something by telling myself that I have already accomplished more than enough, and have nothing left to prove. Now I face more lives as long as life continues for me. What do I do with all that freedom? Good question
Over Thanksgiving I spent time with old dear friends, one a psychiatrist and the other a clinical psychologist. Asked to explain my daily planning, I got away unchallenged by them with saying that I am in part accommodating my own autism. For years before retirement let alone now, I have enjoyed the privilege of having just one or two significant social encounters a day with days in between with nothin’ to do where Jill and I can now hang out and take some time out together, our own Sabbath. As an only child of two working parents, I became habituated to alone time. I learned to adapt by playing with parts of myself in fantasy, which I think is why multiple personalities seem so obvious and natural to me. I figure that we all have multiple parts or personalities. Autism is one of mine.
When I have a single event to contemplate as in thinking about--as against planning--an upcoming class, inside my head I keep rolling over ideas about how I might introduce discussion, of what responses I might expect, and about how I might account for why in terms of the rest of the course I ask this question. I allow time to myself after the event to reflect on what has been said there, and to begin thinking about our next single event together. Some years ago by this practice I lost my need to plan what in particular would come out of my mouth, let alone be on powerpoint, until the moment I start each class. Occasionally, something someone says minutes before I start class shifts my direction.
I’m here to tell you that after years of following this practice in all my public speaking, it works for me and audiences, and IT IS INTENSE for me. It is rewarding in retrospect rather than draining, but it takes a lot of energy, and in the encounter, concentration. I can’t wait to get away by myself to let events of the immediate past float through me in a form of meditation, of concentration not on what will happen, but on digesting what has happened, often tremendously meaningful and fulfilling in its own right—inspiration for upcoming encounters of all kinds.
When circumstances make me deal with multiple “important” encounters in daily life, as in monitoring e-mail and texting, I simply become distracted. I am a functioning autistic. I can make decisions readily without much thought. But I can’t concentrate, and I lose time contemplating and concentrating on making any encounter more than routinely meaningful. There comes a point in my encounters when the volume in my head has reached a point where I tune out and go off into my own space if I have a chance. I had the good luck to have a job for more than half my life that allowed me to concentrate and largely do my own things in between significant encounters. I have learned that a single class can become a more meaningful moment in my own understanding of the world than accumulating a lifetime of lectures could possibly have done.
All our life circumstances are unique, my own included. It is against all I believe to offer any else recipes for life. I acknowledge as here that the experience, feelings and beliefs of others sharpens my own understanding of myself and of how to explain myself to others. But I am flat out proposing that one fact about ageing and retirement applies to all of us: As life progresses, memories of moments you have lived will far outweigh the quantity of time and effort you have spent there. I can no longer measure the value of life by the number of years a body survives. I see my own life as a visit with relatives. I’d just as soon leave this body when the visit is going well, rather than concentrating on what it takes to extend my years in my body.
I am of a generation when many of us are trying to manage lives of surviving ninetyish parents. I think the great untalked-about elephant in health care expenditure debate is our fixation on maximizing our own life spans costs more. My worst end-of-life nightmare is spending my last bodily years dedicated to doing whatever it takes to live longer at great expense to others. The biggest contributor to growth in health care expense is our fixation on prolonging human lives, as though time alive equals the value of a life lived.
Since moving to Central Ohio, I have introduced myself in a number of ways to groups or people I might hook up with here. I have been pushy enough to put people here off I’m sure. I imagine myself having become a fisherman throwing out lines and waiting for bites in return. My time is too valuable for me to fill it for filling’s sake. Serendipity will out. I remain blessed. Love and peace--hal