As the movie line goes, “It’s an offer you cannot refuse.” Circumstances and planning provided me an opportunity to retire early after thirty-eight active working years. I know I am not alone, but the timing was right for a change in life and I took the monumental step.
I’ve thought about retirement since I was in my fifties (many start on the first day they take a job). My retirement planning was intentional at that early age. I read an interview with the late Peter Drucker in which he said something to the effect of “create your second career during your first. Then when it comes, you will be ready for it.” I wish I could give credit to the source, but it has failed my memory. The advice, however, was not lost on me.
Since my mid-fifties, I stepped up my independent work in reading, writing, consulting, and public speaking. I’ve honed these skills over the years and in time, did create a second career. Now that early retirement as arrived, I am looking forward to advancing these opportunities even more. By setting a plan and working the plan, I am finding my days full of what I believe I was created to do.
I’ve written in the past and am researching and writing anew (you can see my books on my website). I am teaching again, which I did for nearly 20 years, at the university level. I had to take a work time out because the demands of the job became overwhelming. Something had to give. And I am exploring my family heritage via genealogy work. I got really interested when I did research for a book chapter, but also stepped up my learning when my mother passed away rather quickly in 2010 (that’s a long story for another time). I’ve attended several large genealogy conferences, have identified over 10,000 family members, and have taken several DNA tests. All of this has been exciting and leading me deeper into research and a different angle for my other assignments in teaching history and leadership….yes, genealogy work has helped in my leadership teaching.
Life after retirement has been good so far, but there have been those moments. Some of boredom, some of wondering what to do, and some slight depression about it all. While it may appear to be refreshing not to work after thirty-eight years, there are moments when you feel as if you have no place to belong. But Drucker was right, you’ve got to create that second career while you can, because it arrives quicker than you think.
I look forward to the items on my to-do list. I can also now say with my earlier retired friends, “wow….how did I have time to work with all the stuff I have now to accomplish?” A second life created in the first has made the future bright and exhilarating.
It’s all there every year…boxes of lights, glass bulbs, snowmen and a tree that over years now leans a little to the left. Decorations that announce “Merry Christmas” dot the house—all the artifacts that say December 25 is fast approaching when gifts will be exchanged, unwrapped and laughter will waft through the house along with the smell of candles and the favorite foods for this time of the year.
I don’t know when it happened; somewhere over the years from childhood to being a responsible adult. It just found it’s way into my life amid the rush of shopping, parties, cards sent, pageants attended, and one more call to do something of good cheer. Somewhere I just lost the mystery of what Christmas is all about. I’ve been called Scrooge a time or two over my life, yet in my defense, I enjoy things, not always because of what they are but because of what they mean, really mean at the core of our being in the way that affects us. So over time, for me the squabbles over “Keep Christ in Christmas,” or “Merry Christmas over Happy Holidays,” and even “It’s our baby Jesus, not yours….so love it or leave it” have taken their toll. The good cheer that is on everyone’s lips for 45 days once a year never seem to be transferred into the other 48 weeks. The sights, smells, and sounds of this time seem to make us feel all cuddly, warm, and nostalgic about life, but once these days are gone, it’s back to normal…whatever form that brings to each person. Even here I can hear the reader affirm…”Yep, you ARE Scrooge.”
God, however, shows up in funny places sometimes in life, just when we need it. I was fixing a porcelain “wise man” I had broken (long story) from an heirloom nativity. Glue and lots of pieces lay on the work space. The whole manger scene, however, was stacked in a pile next to the shards of this red robed messenger. I had been listening to Christmas music, as I was alone for the day. In these movements of trying to get Elmer’s Glue to do its thing, I realized the manger should not be waiting for a lost comrade before it could be placed. So I put the press board stable with pitched roof (so European, I might add) on a table in the living room, arranged all the characters where they are supposed to be, and plugged in the cord to illuminate the stable with the white coated bulb “over the place where he lay.”
It was while arranging the pieces that Michael W. Smith’s CD “Christmastime” came to the track…”Tears are falling, hearts are breaking, How we need to hear from God. You’ve been promised we’ve been waiting, Welcome Holy Child, Welcome Holy Child.” My own tears started slowly meandering down my cheeks… “Hope you don’t mind our manger, How I wish we would have known; But long awaited Holy Stranger, Make yourself at home. Please make yourself at home. Bring your peace into our violence, Bid our hungry souls be filled. World now breaking Heaven’s silence, Welcome to our world, Welcome to our world.”
That’s what I had lost at some point—the mystery. Really, if we are honest, the story makes no sense. God, the creator of the galaxies, the expanse of infinity and unknown, would choose to come to be WITH US—Immanuel—his creation, so he could bring hope into brokenness, a way to live transformed in peace and abundance, the path to be reconciled to God and each other, and the reality that life will spring triumphantly from the sorrow of death. Really? It’s a mystery so grand that only my heart can come to perceive it. It is a mystery too great that can never be found in a string of lights, a box of chocolates, or any gift that will make the day perfect. The mystery is not housed in whether I say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays….it is bound in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It is a mystery I had allowed to become lessened by ravenous commercialism, nonsensical debate, and forgotten by many on December 26.
It is too much a mystery that endless grace, mercy, forgiveness would pour out of God’s being into a human being, so that we might experience wonderful counsel, the mighty God, and peace and love beyond our grasp. “Child in a manger, Infant of Mary. Outcast stranger, Lord of all. Child who inherits all our transgressions, all our demerits on Him fall. Once the most holy Child of salvation, Gently and lowly, Now as our glorious Mighty Redeemer, See Him victorious O’er each foe.”
The soft tears had by now turned to those we often experience when flooded with emotion to deep to control by our own fortitude. “Tidings bring! Hail the King, shepherds did adore Him, From afar by the star, Wise men sought and found Him. Son of God Son of man, All in all I see. Carols raise, His name praise, He shall reign eternally. Carols sing to the King, Jesus Christ our Savior.” That is the mystery and wonder of this time of year that I have been longing for. To remember and experience refreshed the “reason for the season.”
There is a space in the manger scene for the repaired wise man to join the others once the glue is dry. It is a visual reminder that there is always space to join in the mystery of believing that God came and “pitched his tent with us” so that we might experience love, joy, and peace that nothing humanly can capture. (John 1:14) I cannot promise the accoutrements of Christmas and the unfortunate behaviors often witnessed will not draw from me a “Bah-Humbug” in the future. Yet, this year, my heart is drawn again to the wonder and mystery of this ancient story told from the foundation of the world, through voices and witnesses of those who longed to see it (1 Peter 1)….”Joy to the world! The Lord has come! Let earth receive her King! Let every heart, prepare him room! And heaven and nature sing!”
Some leadership lessons emerged, at least for me, from the Pope’s announcement he was resigning from this high and sacred office. This is a lifetime office, as we know from its history, but Pope Benedict XVI’s took the route that was last taken 600 years ago (actually 598) by Gregory XII in 1415. While I do not know all the details of Benedict’s resignation (and we probably can never know all the details), I believe there are some leadership lessons embedded in this decision.
The Pope says he is resigning for health reasons and fatigue: This is a lesson for all of us. We should pay attention to our bodies and know when it is time to leave our current assignments. When our energy begins to fail, as the Pope noted, then we are not able to give our best thinking and abilities to the assignment at hand. All humans wind down. Sensing and acknowledging that our time is coming to an end is a high degree of emotional intelligence. Those who remain robust and vibrant into their 90s who we celebrate and tout in the media are not the norm. And if you don’t believe that is the case, you haven’t visited a nursing home in awhile.
The wisdom of knowing it is time to resign: I’ve witnessed it and so have others when a person hangs on to a leadership role when they really should step aside. Pope Benedict XVI is demonstrating wisdom in knowing he can no longer oversee the duties of the office. How many times have we watched a leader hang on to the office without forethought of its demands? There is wisdom in this act by knowing when one is no longer able to function adequately in the role assigned to them in a more youthful moment.
The third session for me has to do with the courage: It’s been 598 years since the last Pope resigned. That’s a long tenure of tradition. And the length of tradition can cause us to make unwise decisions….to preserve the office and not the institution. The Pope understands he is not the person to lead the 1 billion member Catholic church forward, so is courageous enough (and humble enough) to know that the time is right for him to step down.
Finally, the last leadership lesson is one of deep concern for the institution: It is easy to place one’s role as a leader above the mission and future of the organization. An effective leader understands when they are no longer able to guide the institution forward in dealing with issues and complexities of the assignment. Often, we know of those who stay well after their time is ended technically, but continue to push on as if nothing is wrong. We call them lame duck…holding a position but ineffectual in doing anything productive. The phrase “lame duck” has its origins, however, from the London stock exchange of 1771 where a person who is “lame duck” cannot pay their debt. In a sense, the Pope and leaders who stay past their ability to perform the assignment are no longer able to pay the debt for the demands of the job. There is wisdom and courage that reminds a person when it is best to leave for the sake of the institution than to become a debtor where staying diminishes the legacy and hamstrings the ability of the organization to function effectively (hamstring which by the way means” to render useless”).
I admire Pope Benedict XVI as a leader in this final act. He has demonstrated for us what must go into every leadership decision when the transfer of power comes. A leader does not have to be 85 to make that decision. It may happen when they are 65, 70, or 55. Many signs will start to appear for a leader and I believe the emotionally intelligent will make the right decision even though it does not seem the best from those looking in from the outside.
Blessings to you Pope Benedict XVI and all those wise leaders who follow your example.