Dr. Lisa Cowley, a holistic chiropractor and nutritional counselor of 25 years, along with her husband, Victor Westgate, a high school educator of 34 years, are authors of Pack Lightly: Making Sense of the Second Half of Your Life. Below is an excerpt.
Chapter 2: Sense of Direction
What’s Next/What’s Now
Sometimes, searching for your purpose requires some soul searching. A lot of your identity may have been wrapped up in what you did for a living, and this holds true for both men and women. What’s next after retiring from your job or career can feel very frightening. Staying in a holding pattern instead of leaping into a new way of thinking about your life can happen.
One of our interviewees, Andrea, sixty-three, a recently retired speech pathology teacher from the Madison, Wisconsin area, had these words to say: “I have found retirement to be very disorienting. I don’t know how to explain it, but I really miss my connections with staff and students. I miss the routine. It looks like I will have an opportunity to do some very part-time work at my old school, so I think that may be a good way to connect without too much commitment.” She also shared in another conversation about how humbling it was looking at obituaries because her accomplishments paled in comparison to those she was reading about. It isn’t just about missing the connections with others at work that can make someone feel insecure. Many baby boomers, such as Andrea, start questioning everything, including if they have done enough and what their purpose may be. Andrea retired before her husband, Don, who travels a lot for his job, and she admitted that she didn’t have a lot of close friends outside of her workplace to help her process all the feelings that arose when she retired. Also, she went immediately from retirement to help out her daughter, who just gave birth to twins, further putting her own passions on hold.
This questioning of life purpose happened to another interviewee, Gail, who was introduced in Chapter 1. Gail retired from her massage therapist position when she was sixty-one and started taking on more responsibility for her mother, which initially consisted of commuting back and forth periodically from Massachusetts to Rochester, New York. When her mother’s needs became greater, she moved to her mother’s home and was her primary caregiver for the next six years until her mother died at home at 106 years old. There was a time when she felt she could no longer provide her mother with the care she needed and decided to place her in a nursing home. On moving day, it snowed two feet, and Gail didn’t have the heart to send her mother out to the car in the snow. She called the nursing home and told them that she changed her mind and continued to take care of her mom at home for several more years. She said, “I recall feeling so trapped and restricted by that [taking care of her mother], and when it was over, knowing that it provided a focus to my life, it kept me from making the big decisions that life required.” Gail admitted that she was in a state of suspension, “feeling unsure of my place in the world. Where do I want to live? Do I want to travel? Go to Europe? Live in Colorado again or camp around the country?”
She remembered being depressed after her mother’s passing, not recognizing the person she had become after so many years of putting her own passions on the back shelf while caring for her mom. She slowly began to realize that after so many years of her life taking care of others as a massage therapist and as a caregiver to her mom, her primary purpose would be to take care of herself for a while. She began to travel solo throughout New Mexico and Arizona and was bitten by the travel bug since then. When asked if she was a goal-oriented person, Gail stated that she had never been a goal setter and depended on her own intuition or on external events to guide her and now wonders if that has worked in her favor.
Taking the next step after the busy years of working, raising a family, or caregiving can lead to a somewhat uncertain state. It is a time to pause and evaluate what is most important in your life before proceeding forth in a new direction, with no sense of urgency. Be the turtle, not the hare, while searching for a new sense of purpose. Why would you want to race for a quick solution that may not sustain the deep growth that you may desire?
The second half of life allows you to explore new beginnings and an opportunity to see things in a new way, but you must be mindful that there is always underlying friction, a sort of push and pull between reaching for what’s next and staying comfortable in what is familiar. All types of doubt can fill the mind. Am I ready to do this? What will I do if I fail? The most self-incriminating doubt is Who do I think I am to lead such a magnificent, purposeful life?