Looking Forward: A Positive Take on Retirement
It is wonderful to look forward in the New Year to all the coming excitement and opportunities that lie ahead. This is especially meaningful for me, as I have recently hung up my spurs as a clinical neurologist. I immensely enjoyed my practice—the research and the relationships with my patients and colleagues—but, after five years, time, distance and safety concerns (being a senior citizen, working in Dallas and living in Tulsa, Oklahoma with a 500 mile super commute in inclement weather) finally trumped my struggle with letting go and being able to move on. Of course, spoken or unspoken, many of those around me were worried of what I was going to do to replace the high intensity life I was living. Was I going to become bored or depressed? Would I have trouble coping? Would I be able to adjust to a new lifestyle?
In my new incarnation, I am a 73-year-old freshman in computer science and computer engineering at the local community college here in Tulsa. I had to submit my transcript from college. The college had trouble finding it in the microfilm archives which were 50 years old, but when the transcript came I was given credit for many requirements like English 101 and history, so that I can concentrate on my major. When I went to the book store, the lady looked at my bushy grey hair and asked, “Are you taking the class or teaching it?” I assured her that I was a student and she readily accepted my explanation, which was a relief. Why am I jumping into this program at my tender age? There are several reasons which are consistent with my core values and philosophy of life.
First of all, I believe in the dictum, “If you don’t use it, you lose it!” I have always felt that the body and mind need to be constantly challenged in order to function optimally. There is no excuse to say, “I am bored.” We must nurture our curiosity and foster a commitment to lifelong learning. No one is ever really educated. If you’re educated, that means you have stopped learning.
Having a forward looking-vision and keeping younger friends is the only way to stay young. I am sure that I will have to make some adjustments. I will have a new uniform. I am ditching the tie and will be wearing polo shirts so I can fit in with the crowd and maybe look more like an engineer than a doctor.
Someone might reasonably ask, “Why in the heck would he pick computer engineering with all that math and physics? What practical value does it have? Is he going to be able to hang in there long enough to get a degree and then rejoin the workforce?” My answer is that I chose this field because I want to have fun. I have always been a closet engineer in my work at the Human Performance Lab, and now I have a chance to spread my wings. For me, this is not jumping off into left field. I have been interested in how the brain processes information at the cellular level for a long time. Computer engineering will help me understand and perhaps develop new mathematical models of brain function. This is not a disconnected activity but has relevance to me and will build on everything that I have been doing before.
Again, the important thing is not what you are doing or what you choose to do, but that you are doing something that is fun. There has to be some positive attraction that will keep you motivated and will keep you coming back and will sustain your interest to do the activity. In other words, it must be rewarding. Each one of us must find that activity that gratifies us. Each one of us has an obligation to create our own happiness. Having power over our choices gives us all more of a sense of control over our lives and our destiny. My wife is supportive of my choice, but she has different interests and has chosen to enroll in a one year class to learn to be a docent at the art museum. She has a fair amount of homework, but I can see the joy she has when she goes to class each week. For both of us the journey is more important than the destination.
My story may seem irrelevant. Many of us may have challenges—financial, spiritual, emotional or physical—which seem insurmountable, and for which we have no hope of fixing them. If possible, we should try to reframe these challenges as opportunities. For me, my challenges were going to be boredom, lack of relevance and the possibility of inactivity and even depression related to the loss of my former image. These are the times when we should reach out to those around us and ask for assistance—I did. Look at our support systems. See what is available in your community. Bloom where you are planted. See how a little help can keep you active, independent, curious and looking forward to having fun.
By Dr. R. Malcolm Stewart