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The Rest of Your Life

By September 26, 2015 6 Comments

I’ve just finished the first two weeks of the rest of my life. As a few of you know, and as more of you may have surmised from my meanderings about goodbye songs a couple months ago, I’ve taken retirement from my long-time profession of college teaching. More precisely, I accepted a (pretty generous) buyout from my employer which had determined that I belonged to a bloated department that needed immediate downsizing. I’m not sure about their calculations (“metrics,” don’t you know, right up there on the Temple Mount of higher education with “assessment” and “branding”), and I don’t get the emergency. Was it really necessary to enact this measure on such short notice that I had five hours to get ready for what turned out to be my last lecture in a career of 37 years? But I’ve heard very pointedly from people who had been dealt far worse, and next week the holy hand-grenade of “reprioritization” is scheduled to go off on my old campus with pain and suffering for people who will get no buyout but only eleven months’ notice of their end of employment at this institution. So I have no reason to complain. Better to explain or muse on some other things instead.

My wife recently came across an article laying out the three stages of retirement: go-go, slo-go, and no-go. I’m clearly in the go-go phase, planning all sorts of trips that a flexible schedule permits and stacking up a pile of academic projects. (I’m done teaching history, I tell everyone, but not writing or researching it). Most immediately, I took the opportunity to sit in on a couple courses—Shakespeare and Kierkegaard—that I never could fit in back in the day. The first few meetings posed a real challenge. Faculty get used to a life in which, at set times in the week, they can walk into a certain room and be the boss. Who talks and about what is theirs to command, and guess who gets to talk the most and expect the others to (at least pretend to) listen? Two weeks ago I walked into a classroom same as every other start of September, and had to sit in the other chairs. Sit and shut up. Even though I had many, oh so many, brilliant things to say. Some of which actually might have been of instructional merit. In those circumstances to zip your brilliant lip is a discipline—a spiritual discipline, no doubt—worth practicing. I feel I’ve made some progress in that I’m chafing in my chair only half the time instead of the whole hour. It’ll get better.

Some other discoveries have been more poignant and valuable. These came in the weeks immediately following my abrupt severance from my well-structured and predictable life. Part of the buyout package was an offer of some sessions with a psychologist specializing in career patterns and decisions. From these I gleaned three bits of wisdom, each helpful in its own right, each most true by the official standards of Christian theology—and each directly contradictory to the real theology by which we (at least my brand of Calvinist Christians) actually operate.

1. Retirement involves some grief. This apparently is true even for many folks who retire on schedule, with full planning, after a long descent path into the airport instead of getting knocked out of earth orbit by a close encounter with a space rock. Doesn’t matter. Our jobs can be precious and satisfying; more than a job, a vocation, a profession in every sense of that word. When it’s over, something’s lost, and we mourn. Well d’uh! I hear the people cry. That’s an insight? For me it was.

2. Which brings up the question, was I maybe just a teensy bit over-invested in my job? In the college I worked for? The counselor asked me, do you think you have value for who you are irrespective of what you do? Well, catechetical lunch is served! I know the right answer to that question, only it turns out it wasn’t the answer I lived by. Not at all. I guess the technical term is ego-differentiation, separating yourself from the groups and roles and institutions in which you’re enmeshed. We heard this not only in catechism but in Psych 151. Aced those exams, as I recall, but didn’t get it. I’m starting to now.

3. “You’re a parent,” the counselor mused one session. “What did you do when one of your kids fell and skinned a knee? Did you scold and mock him for clumsiness? Ground her until she promised to be more careful? Of course not, you gave hugs and cleaned out the scrape and put on a band-aid and brought out the juice and cookies. You were kind. Can you be kind to yourself, now that you’ve been bumped around?” Well, that never came up in catechism, nor in most of the sermons I’ve heard and the groups I’ve been in and the classes I’ve taken—and taught! Being kind to yourself, isn’t that kinda self-centered? Selfish even? And isn’t selfishness the worst of sins, the plague of modern civilization, the doom of America—this me, me, me!?! Well, yes it is, but. Can we be kind to others if we’re not also kind to ourselves? Can we genuinely give if on this score we’re empty?

First weeks of the rest of my life, and I’m back in the classroom, literal and virtual. Learning things. You don’t really have to wait to do that until you retire, you know.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • allanj says:

    Welcome to the world of retirement. All the things you say are true. And still, there’s another world out there — where you discover that you have time for many things that are important. And no more “metrics,” or my favorite, “rubrics.”

  • Diana says:

    Recently retired. Working in ways large and small since I was 12. This new life is a gift. A prize . A lotto ticket that wins. Trust me, your’re gonna love it. Keep us all updated!

  • Lee Collins says:

    Seventeen years into retirement these lessons still apply. Who we ARE ( beloved children of God) is more than what we DO.

  • James says:

    Sir, thank you for your post. Your counselor’s comment above (“Do you think you have value for who you are irrespective of what you do?” particularly resonated here…Definitely a lesson for all, regardless of work-life stage. Thank you again.

  • I appreciated this honest and thoughtful post a great deal. The five hour notice–that was painful. For me, after 1 1/2 years, I think retirement is a wonderful privilege! I hope you will find it to be good as well.

  • John Haas says:

    Real sorry to hear this, but you seem to be handling it as well as can be expected. You’ll need to start doing a series of TED talks, as it’s hard to imagine a world without Jim Bratt in it, teaching.

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