Sculpting: Reflections on Work and Retirement

Among the many things I ponder with a sense of wonder is having survived the countless number of ill-informed decisions, pointless competition, and impulsive ambitions that have animated my life. I don’t suppose this to be vastly different for most of a certain age willing to look back over the path they trod. Even a brief glimpse of my forty plus years of professional full-time employment evokes a wide range of feelings when I consider how blind I was to how little I knew about the things I sought but did not comprehend. It is ironically fitting then that I began my professional life as a minister, ordained at the ripe old age of twenty-four. What greater ambition than to set one’s sites on God; perched in my pulpit set above the assembled congregation, I will speak to them of God and life’s most vexing questions. Almost fifty years later I view such ambition with a measure of affection, empathy, and amusement. I also view it as naïve and perhaps a little dangerous. Still, I too understand that what might be framed as arrogance is an essential component of a young person’s constitution that fuels their ascendency. Nevertheless, setting any ambitious twenty-four-year-old loose among a people raised to believe that one who wears their collar backward deserves their trust and respect is fraught.

Ordination Day

Twenty years as a parish minister offered experiences of such intensity, they often proved agonizing. At the same time, this sort of intensity evokes a sense of fulfillment because the experience of life-changing moments invites us to wrestle with questions about meaning, suffering, and what is and is not important. I came to understand this over time. As I reflect back on this phase of my life I see that the biggest questions posed by my experiences were largely existential. Only now does it occur to me how unusual it is for someone just beginning their professional life thrusted into a world that demands existential ruminations. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite for most young people. The early twenties are about believing your bulletproof. You almost must believe this because conquering your new world always demands risks which, if contemplated too carefully, are bound to fill your mind with doubt. Existential concerns for most emerge organically as we live year upon year and encounter the hard edges of living through loss, broken dreams, setbacks, raising children, and so on. Before completing my first year in the parish, I found myself in the ER of the local hospital contemplating how I would offer solace to the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl from the youth group who had just been hit and killed by a car as she rode her bike home from a flute lesson. I stood over her body on the gurney thinking that she babysat my kids just a few weeks ago. As if this were not painful enough, the girl’s father had just left her mother and younger sister a month earlier. I spent most of that night talking with the girls mom while her little sister fell asleep with her head in my lap. But, there was more to follow. A call in the middle of the night. One of the Church School teachers whose family was very active in the life of the parish I was told had been stabbed by her estranged husband. Still worse, the two children had witnessed this. Would I please come now. The police were still there when I arrived. The children were waiting for me in the den with their stepfather. I stood outside the den thinking, what am I going to do? What am I supposed to say? I returned home a few hours before the school bus drove up to the Church to transport the sixty kids attending the retreat weekend in the mountains I was leading. As I stepped on the bus, I felt disoriented and broken when one the the kids’ fathers grabbed my arm and said, “No. I’m driving you.”

“Oh. Okay”, I answered and followed him to the car.

“I heard where you were last night.”

I was quickly learning that parish ministry can be a steady diet of profoundly intense experiences that pose a rush of existential questions. I am also conscious that questions posed does not necessarily translate to lessons learned or wisdom acquired. So, it would be most accurate to describe this time as a kind of piling up or of my collecting critical existential questions that would roil about seeking interpretation as they created, tore down, and re-created who I was and what I believed as a person. All this done in the presence of God and your congregation. It must have looked like a rodeo with me flailing about on the back of an angry bull desperately trying to hang on.

An apt metaphor for these years exists in the Book of Genesis where God fashions Adam from the clay he scoops up from the ground and breathes life into The poet, James Weldon Johnson presents a still more colorful visual in GOD’S TROMBONES,

Up from the bed of the river

God scooped the clay;

And by the bank of the river

He kneeled him down; And there the great God Almighty

Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,

Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,

Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;

This Great God,

Like a mammy bending over her baby,

Kneeled down in the dust

Toiling over a lump of clay

Till he shaped it in his own image…

I was years away from even remotely understanding how woefully unfinished I remained; years away from appreciating that there simply is no point when one arrives and is now complete. While the person I was becoming remained a mystery, the process was intense and exhilarating. I did little thinking about the fertile ground such experiences cultivate in which, for me, the seeds of both humility and hubris were bound to germinate. Thus, the birth of my children and the obligations of family that were very much a part of this time competed with the mix of intensity, adulation, approval, as well as the intellectual and emotional stimulation I found in my new life. My congregation needed me, and it was heady stuff, much more intense than helping with dinner and putting kids to bed. It continues to amaze me how blind one can be to what appears obvious to others. I had a spiritual director who described what she called the seductions of idealism. Ministers, doctors, and caregivers in general are famous for the depth of care and compassion they offer to those they are commissioned to care for even as they neglect those closest to them. We are easily seduced by our ideals over inflating the importance of our presence and underestimating the resilience of those we are there to assist. This is my life now, I might try to explain. How is a family supposed to respond to this? Then again, maybe I reiterate I am simply being true to the ideals of my chosen vocation and expressed in the vows taken when ordained. It’s a helluva heavy burden to lay on those closest to us. It is a theme that echoes through the families of caregivers that many are not prepared to successfully grapple with.

Fortunate to have formed powerful friendships with more senior colleagues that modeled a sort of fearless honesty tinged with cynicism, I tried to tether my inflation to the realities of my fragility. Urged to view skeptically my own glowing press releases, I did learn I was no different than the people I ministered to in crisis. I was not bulletproof. I was every bit as breakable as the people my noble “calling” directed me to minister for. Outwardly, I accepted the invitation to increasingly larger parishes but it was also a rollercoaster for twenty years lived out more publicly than anyone would wish. A rough but inevitable ending to this phase was marked by a broken marriage, the resignation from my position as Senior Pastor, and a growing awareness in mid-life of how very uncertain and ambiguous life’s direction can quickly become. Now, self-exiled to Job’s ash heap, I felt surrounded by the sea of miscalculations and mistakes made over many years. I had known and indeed, ministered to many others on the ash heap and always assured them they would emerge intact; but I never expected to find myself there. Another miscalculation.

From the perspective of the present, like most, I am better equipped to look back over the past seven decades with an appreciation for how messy the business of becoming a person is… how messy creation is. To underscore the importance of the metaphor of potter and clay suggested in Genesis and God’s Trombones, the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, employ a similar one, describing how the potter starts over again when flaws are discovered in his work. It’s a good metaphor because at some point most everyone has made a pinch pot, or thrown a pot, or a tried their hand at sculpting a masterpiece. And most too will recall when they determined their creation was less than hoped for and pounded the emerging but fatally flawed masterpiece back into an identity-less lump of clay to start again.

Anyone who has been around for a while will have experienced enough life to understand how it feels to be a clod of clay worked and re-worked. But even as one is created, smashed down, and re-created, nothing is lost or wasted. For us, it is not a matter of truly starting over. Curiously, the metaphorical clay from which we are created retains the history of our incarnations. As vessels, our appearance changes but our history worn within, does not. In a way, we live many lives in a single lifetime.

I fumbled around looking for a way to understand this stranger in limbo. Without a parish, I found myself on a number of unlikely paths. I tried on different hats during these few years including teaching a class for graduate students pursuing their degrees in marriage and family therapy, running an ethics training program for a large corporation, practicing as a psychotherapist, and working as a social worker/manager for a faith-based non-profit organization. The fact that this organization had ties to a faith-based community meant that it was not entirely new or strange to me. But at the same time I had to learn new skills and interact with the worlds of business and government regularly. I was no longer in charge but part of an organizational hierarchy which was challenging but good for me. My new work with the non-profit involved engaging with the emerging welfare-reforms introduced at this time by the Clinton administration. I did this and our organization developed a pilot that gained some national recognition from business and government leaders. After two years, and completely unexpected, I was recruited by a big publicly traded company I had never heard of to become part of an industry I did not know existed. This is where I spent the next +20 years of my life. I found myself operating, then designing, and ultimately overseeing privately operated public welfare programs throughout the US and ultimately world-wide. Much to my surprise, I promoted up to increasingly more senior positions quickly. Me! The parish minister!

Me! The Minister!
Contract Signing in Israel

My new work required the development of skills and ways of thinking that were largely foreign to me. Yet, the capacity to engage with people, cultivate their trust and lead I learned as a parish minister, translated well to the world of business. This, despite how many had told me for years it would not. The analytical skills I did not possess, I learned under mentors far more skilled than me. What I did not learn, I again relied on the collaborative skills one needs in parish work where there is never enough funding but there are plenty of talented people. Parish ministry is NOT uniquely different than most other vocational pursuits because of its focus on life’s major developmental milestones- birth, coming of age, tragedy, failures, love, growing relationships, dissolving relationships, sickness, death. Life happens to us without regard to where you work. The big difference was an unspoken understanding that the events that shaped our lives most powerfully were topics generally not discussed. This was new for me. I was straddling two different worlds having been shaped in one that placed a very high premium on making sense of existential matters, but now living in one that prized its fast-pace, its results-focused approach, and the capacity to achieve ever-growing returns for investors who often did not understand or care what we did as long as we were profitable. We did not talk process; we talked outcomes. I now lived in the largely analytic and strategic world of “solution-focused program designs” and “business process re-engineering” and “better, faster, cheaper”. Even so, life’s challenges force the hardest questions, and these need not be construed as detrimental to a business-focused culture. Making room for a person to be whole, I came to believe, is good for business because it’s good for people.

After sixteen years with the company, while grateful for the incredible learnings, the company was growing and changing. As a senior executive profitability was paramount and a history of success was nice but what you had in the pipeline was more important. The provision of care for disadvantaged populations felt less important than financial projections and quarterly earnings calls. This, together with a diagnosis of prostate cancer forced a reshuffling of priorities. The company wanted to move faster and I wanted to slow things down. I opened a small firm focused on international business opportunities with a former competitor based out of London. We were likeminded in many ways and found a good balance between that which we valued and paying our bills.

We were moderately successful, made some money, got to travel, and valued the friendship we built and continue to share. For me, however, the big takeaway was how ill-equipped I am constitutionally to run my own business. It was not enjoyable and my wife urged me to understand that I was entitled to it. It took a while for me to trust that what she was urging might actually be true. I was ready to retire and explore ways to integrate more intentionally the existential and analytical. So, after four years I decided to step back.

Now, the gift retirement was offering me was the time to do things that supported a more balanced and integrated understanding of my world. I wrote three books over the next few years that largely focused on existential issues that raised spiritual questions within a mundane milieu. I wrote not for the market, but for a sense of personal satisfaction in a genre known as magical realism. My characters were animals struggling with matters that are very human. In due course, I came to learn the likelihood of getting anything published by way of the traditional path was about the same as winning the lottery. Instead, I self-published and discovered what a vast industry it is. Thousands upon thousands of people are writing books. Literary agents and publishers do all they can to discourage manuscript submissions. They remind you their aim is to sell books and as one agent stated hoped your social media followers numbered in the +100,000 range.

On the other hand, self-publishing meant self-promoting and schlepping boxes of books and a display table to sit in bookstores or holiday bazaars waiting for someone to pick up my book, pretend to read the back cover, smile, set it back down and move to the next table. This was not at all what I had in mind. Still, I wrote, published, and made modest efforts to promote awareness of my books. I received lots of reviews, and most were positive. One of the books was even reviewed by Publishers Weekly which was where “real” author’s books were reviewed. It was becoming clear to me that my true ambition was greater than being a self-published author; it was to be a best-selling author. I studied what the literary agents and publishers were looking for and predictably learned it was whatever sells. What had begun for me as soul-searching explorations written in a genre I enjoyed was now morphing into ways I might bend this exercise into writing about that which was of little interest to me. It all felt very familiar. The ambition that retirement promised to release me from was impacting my ability to simply enjoy. Naïve, I suppose to believe that one can suddenly shed a trait cultivated over decades as a snake sheds its skin.

While writing these books, I decided to learn Mandarin after reading an article about people using videoconferencing apps that matched you with an instructor in China for just a few dollars per hour. Why learn Mandarin? I suppose this was to test and sharpen my analytical rather than intuitive skills. My biggest lesson- It’s often the wildest ideas that offer the most pleasant surprises. Such was the case with my quest to learn Mandarin. What started as an impulsive desire to learn a strange language became a springboard for building some very special friendships that have endured for years. I did in fact learn some Mandarin, but my teachers were equally interested in learning English and about life outside of their country.

My young teacher, Qin qin’s image appears on the computer screen.

Qin qin practicing Tai Chi

“Ni hao, Dawei.”

“Ni hao, Qin qin.”

“Ni hao ji tian ma?” (“How have you been lately?”), Qin qin asks.

“Mamahuhu” I respond. She smiles because she knows I like the phrase. It literally translates as horse horse, tiger tiger. But it means, “so-so” or “mediocre”.

“Ni hen mang?” (“Are you very busy?”)

“Wo bu mang.” (“I’m not busy.”) “Ni ne?” (“And you?”) “Ni hao ma?” (“How are you?”) I ask.

She sighs and slips into English telling me her boss is an idiot who cannot think through

problems to come up with reasonable and effective solutions. Our conversations followed a similar pattern for months and a friendship emerged. She had been on her own for several years. Her mother wanted her to marry believing that was her only way to do more than barely survive. Her mother didn’t think she was very smart, nor did her boss.

Over the months it became clear how very wrong they were. She had little self-confidence but was very smart. I introduced her to my wife Lynda who would join us for part of my “lesson”, and I guess it’s fair to say we took some variation of a paternal interest in her success.

Without filling in all the details between then and now, she fell in love with an ESL teacher in Shanghai and has subsequently married. She has just finished her PhD in Economics at the University of California Irvine and her husband law school. We continue to talk from time to time which brings me a great deal of pleasure. Two other teachers I had- Zhang Yang and Sisi also became friends with Lynda and me and each came to stay a week with us a few years ago. We remain in touch.

Zhang Yang visiting from Shanghai

I did learn some Mandarin and sometimes can’t help myself from using a phrase or two with someone in the market I rather blindly determine is Chinese and speaks Mandarin. This practice has proven to be clumsy eliciting comments like “Excuse me?” in perfect English. There have also been enthusiastic responses in rapidfire Mandarin requiring me to explain “Wo shuohua yidian” (I speak a little).

Si si visiting from Hainan

Retirement, I am learning, is an ongoing negotiation one enters into with oneself. How badly do I want to learn Mandarin? Am I ready to spend a year writing a book about a subject that is of little interest. Am I ready to create and recreate characters; edit and re-edit dialogue? If on the off chance the book is selected for publication am I ready to wait another year to have it published?   Retirement is also about reconciliation. Reconciling oneself to the limits of time, one’s skill level, and tolerance for the demands of study and practice to achieve something even remotely close to mastery. Indeed, retirement’s greatest task is to be at peace with less than perfect. I have continued to write but have reconciled myself to the limits of my patience for infinite edits and dreams of the great American novel. I write nearly every day but the drive to publish what I write together with the desire for recognition have diminished. I have a blog with a few readers and am for the most part content to write for it. I have learned articulating my thoughts and ideas helps me understand what I believe. I am still stunned by the power of this discovery. Until I find a way to put vague notions into words I don’t really know what I believe. It reminds me of the person trying to explain something especially difficult who concludes with an exasperated, “you know what I mean!” Yet, the truth is we don’t know what they mean and generally they don’t either, except in some vague manner. So, I write to understand and have concluded this is worth something. Actually, I decided it is worth a lot. Write for understanding, not for recognition.

I am consulting again now. I do this for an Australian company interested in an opportunity in Toronto, Canada. I have been engaged with this for nearly a year now. It’s been both fun and challenging. Curiously, it has helped me better understand how working as a retired person in a field where I spent years professionally is so very different from the career building one does prior to retiring. There are triggers that evoke old ambitions or a desire for recognition, but largely that has faded. As it diminishes, I realize that the hardest parts of the work we do is unrelated to the specific task assigned. So much of what makes a job hard turns out to be managing the complexities involved in how our work shapes our sense of self. We’re not just working; we are creating our identity. Thus, we flail about trying to figure out how and where, or even if we fit among our colleagues. We are vigilant about pursuing those opportunities that demonstrate our value, establish our importance, draw attention to our contributions. And what makes it doubly hard is how much of it is a daily crapshoot where achievements and failures are often a matter of dumb luck-good and bad. One day we are exhilarated and the next deflated. And it’s exhausting! We spend so much time and energy simply trying to become someone we are comfortable with; someone liked and respected by others. We busy ourselves with building our brand, designing talking points, and maintaining the image we have created. Among the many complications “a career” presents are the vast collection of variables that have little to do with a solution for a specific problem. As much as we may be engaged with designing a solution, we are also designing and re-designing ourselves– sculpting the lump of clay into a real person. Retirement makes a lot of promises but invariably will disappoint without understanding the importance of negotiation and reconciliation as critical to its success. Old behaviors are challenging to change, of course. So, I have learned to treasure those sometimes brief moments where I am able to work on some project unencumbered by the need to do the dance we all do while navigating the minefield of organizational politics, personal ambitions, and fate. I do appreciate the fact that we really never fully abandon the dance. Maybe just slow it down and, you know…a good slow dance is always a pleasure.

1 thought on “Sculpting: Reflections on Work and Retirement

  1. I always enjoy your writing and musings. Some thoughts, ideas or reckonings are familiar to me as well. And some are thought-provoking. Keep it coming.

    Like

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