Episode 526 Retired and Finding Meaning
This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.
"I just want to serve the best eel in all of Japan. That is what gives meaning to my life," said a Japanese restaurant owner to my former student, Gordon Mathews. Gordon was gathering material for a book on the meaning of life. He was interviewing people from Japan and America and contrasting the two cultures. Gordon had been one of my very best philosophy students many years ago. He had gone on to Yale and eventually Cornell for a PH.D. in anthropology. He now teachers at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. He wrote that book perhaps forty years ago. And he is still pursuing the topic. Many of us are still pursuing that topic. Finding meaning in life seems to be a never ending quest - sort of like pursuing more air to breath. We have to have it.
Gordon's guy with the eel contrasted with others that had different pursuits. But this is what gave meaning to his life. This is the only example I clearly recall from the book. I know there was a nun who had left the nunnery and was much happier serving some cause other than that of the Catholic church. There was another guy who found meaning in life through carpentry. But the guy with the eel, he was the most memorable for me.
The main point of the book does remain in my mind. There is not hardly anything you can think of that has not served as the goal for giving meaning to someone's life. It may be raising dogs, horses or birds. It may be gardening, painting, or playing music. It may be cooking, walking or collecting match books. The range is endless.
How is it that so many different pursuits can serve the same purpose? When we are young giving meaning to life is not much of a concern. We try to please our parents, teachers and friends. We want to get along. We want to be liked. We want to fit in. Our life is filled with the action of moving and learning as we develop. We tend to move from day to day with direction from outside. We spend little time or effort trying to decide what we are doing with our life.
As we enter adulthood work and family give purpose to our lives. We need to provide for our spouse and children. And we need to launch ourselves into a career of one sort or another. We need to somehow rationalize whatever may present itself to us that will fulfill these obligations. We learn to gain some semblance of meaning in our life. Of course our minds are now more mature and we find ourselves wondering if this is all that life has to offer. We change jobs; move from one place to another; get divorced, etc. We drink some alcohol or try some drugs. We experience a mid-life crisis. We throw ourselves first one direction and then another. A worm continues to wiggle in the mind.
During this stage in life the future may serve us as an option for finding meaning in life. We dream of doing something different; being somewhere different, living a life of excitement, contentment and finding true happiness. And then we retire.
Yes, we retire. The parents, teachers, bosses and our own children no longer control us and they no longer give meaning to our lives. We are on our own. Now we must give meaning to our own lives. Just exactly how does one do that? We have no experience.
This is the point in the story where I am suppose to provide an answer. An answer that you can read and then plug into your life and walk away happy. Well - that is not going to happen. It can't happen. The question of what will give your life meaning can only be answered by you. Serving the best eel will not satisfy all of us.
I just received a letter from a regular listener in England to these podcasts who wrote of this very issue. It is not easy to go from young to old, from work to retired. It is not like flipping channels on your television. Sometimes the position in which we find ourselves at this stage of life seem insurmountable. We sit still as if abandoned in the middle of the sea. Everything looks the same in all directions. Many of us don't want to do this and we don't want to do that. We just don't know where to go or what to do. We find ourselves lost. We sit a lot. We go for walks that leave us tired but not inspired.
It would be good if we could go to the book store and find a book with satisfying answers. But we can't. We know we can't. We have lived for decades. We have read so very many books. We have taken so very many classes. We have read tons of magazines and journals. And we have certainly read more newspapers that we should have. We know that time is ticking and we know that those sources have never answered the question to our satisfaction. Finding meaning in life remains a pursuit.
What to do?
I've maxed out my time for this podcast. I want to continue this train of thought in the next few weeks. Maybe it will be help you and me both.
In the mean time you might go back under my name on the home page and scroll down to Podcasts for 2010; Episodes 191& 192. I also talked about this topic in several of the first few episodes of this podcasts in the year 2007.
If you have questions, comments or suggestions please contact; firstname.lastname@example.org
This is Retirement Talk.