I RECENTLY SPENT A LONG WEEKEND IN CONNECTICUT, re-connecting with the far-flung classmates at my 40th Yale reunion. Normally, when I go to such events, I try not to have any great expectations. No expectations, no disappointments.
Of course, with no expectations, I was rewarded with the unexpected: a medley of enjoyable and sometimes inspiring conversations, not only with the people I ate meals with every day four decades ago, but with others I knew casually—and even some I never knew. It was not about nostalgia. It was about where we all landed today and how we had gotten to this place, what we had learned along the way and where we still wanted to be.
One of the most thought-provoking encounters was an “accidental conversation” that took place over the course of a five-minute walk. It started when I was leaving a presentation about liberal arts education for the 21st Century, focusing on the new Yale-National University of Singapore. Walking out of the lecture hall, I held the door open for a fellow alum who was in New Haven for his 55th reunion. We started chatting about liberal arts and lifelong learning—and lamenting that the kind of liberal arts we experienced as undergraduates was not spread over the course of a lifetime. Why, we wondered, do we read writers like Faulkner in our 20s, but not in our 50s, when most of us probably would appreciate (and understand) them much more?
By the time we reached the end of the block, my new-found comrade and I had kicked liberal arts down the road to retirement. Neither of us had much use for the R-word. What was the point of closing the first part of your life and sticking in a door stop called retirement. My friend, a former educator at UMass Dartmouth, and I agreed that part of the problem lay with language—yes, both of us were English majors. Why do we use the word, “retirement”?
Here we were, my friend pointed out, at a place where we spent four important years of our lives. What happened next? Graduation. We graduated, and a world of possibilities was opened to us. Then, years later, many of us found ourselves at another benchmark: a mid-life crisis, a time of anxiety and self-questioning. Finally, we arrived at retirement, a word that identifies us not by who are, but who we were. We retire from something to….what?
As my companion and I prepared to part company, we decided: Why not view these critical life junctures the way we did in our 20s—simply as one of a series of “graduations”? We complete one phase of our life and look forward to the next, with another new world of possibilities now open to us.
Apparently, a lot of other classmates were having similar thoughts, because that afternoon there was a standing-room-only crowd for a panel discussion titled “Second and Third Acts in Life.” We listened to several classmates talk about their experiences “graduating” to new chapters of life, and plenty of audience members chimed in with their own accounts. Later, I connected with one of my classmates, Rachel Hockett, who related her own story about returning to New York at age 60 to start a theater company in her home town, Ithaca. (You can read her account on this site: http://roelresources.com/act-three-forgo-the-hammock-start-a-new-theater-company/)
Of course, not every un-retiring type needs to graduate to some dramatic new endeavor or career. The point is, be intentional. Look forward to your evolution, the person you are becoming, not backward at the person you have been. And if you have an unusual (and inspiring) story of your own second or third chapter, send it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll share it with the whole RoelResources community.
I love graduation parties.