Retirement re-calibration

At the age of 61, I retired from my work as a Church leader. My retirement was sudden though it had a long lead. Retiring after thirty years of leadership, I was utterly exhausted and in poor health. Since that crisis, I have had the opportunity to reflect on my work life and to consider what comes next.

Sudden retirement is less than perfect; a lot less than ideal. I had hoped to continue working until I was 66 years old, but illness intervened and forced my hand. Previously back in 2009, I had had a nervous breakdown. Frankly, I have always carried a fragility of health and found that I had not and could not recover sufficiently to continue as if nothing had happened.

My work was as a Baptist Minister and be can be surprisingly demanding. I felt like a distressed bi-plane meandering down the runway of life without sufficient power to take off again and battered by the crosswinds of culture. Largely, under-resourced in the work, I was utterly exhausted. I needed to abort another take-off attempt and consider my options. That did not happen. The future has a way of choosing you. I officially retired five years early on 31 May 2016, thirty years to the day since I started my work as a Church leader.

Although retiring in these circumstances added to my distressed state, it also provided me with a way out what was proving to be a toxic work experience for me. I did not have the personal resources to choose a new way forward for myself. I felt trapped by my role.

A way out of one life is a way into another life. This other life did not yet have a shape in my mind. The landscape I faced was featureless, or so it seemed. I did not know anyone else who was where I had found myself, and I don’t think I could yet speak the language of this new place. I was a stranger in my own body. I was, bluntly, blinded and disorientated by my plight. In a moment of desperation, I was able to write my resignation letter to my Church. I was no longer fit for work, no longer an asset to the kind people of the Church.

Despite my perilous state, two significant events propelled me towards a new outlook on life and have proved to be instrumental in defining my new world. The first thing that happened was that we needed to move house. My housing was attached to my previous role as a church pastor. Fortunately, a Charitable organisation was able to help find a new home for myself and my wife, Maggie. We moved into our new home some six weeks after my official retirement.

The following week, I had surgery planned. I needed a new knee. The surgery went well, and it took a few weeks before I could mobilise sufficiently to potter around the house. Happily, my knee continued to improve, and in less than a year, I could say with complete honesty that my knee was just like the old one but without the pain. The only time that I know that I have a chunk of metal in my leg is when the temperature falls to below zero then and only then does it feel like a chunk of metal. I count it a privilege to live in an age and in a country where knee replacement surgery is routine.

The first year of retirement consisted of long periods of physical rest. Physical rest opened the door to psychological and spiritual rest. All three kinds of rest are vital if I was to find renewal. For instance, the more I quieted my inner chatter, the more I heard. As one of my granddaughters said to me, “Sometimes granddad you have to shush yourself.”

I was, and perhaps still am, re calibrating. Thrust into a new environment takes time to familiarise with the new country. In this new country, the rules of life, the language, and the pace at which my new world unfolds are refreshingly slower. As a Myers-Briggs ENTJ, and a workaholic, I made my life more complicated than it had to be. I had to wean myself off being an adrenaline junkie.
In the three years since my immigration to my new country, I have found shape, purpose and meaning. I can now see many things that it was not possible to see when I furiously ran my Ferris wheel.

Here are six things that have emerged out of the tumult of three years ago:

  1. I write. Every day, well almost every day. In 2016 I started my Commentarium, my private view of my life. In my Commentarium, I write around 500-600 words a day on what I see and feel. It is therapy.
  2. I blog. As you may know, I have re-launched my blog Russ Parkes Live. Russ Parkes Live is an extension of me. I am writing once a week or so on a more thoughtful aspect of my experience of life.
  3. I research. I am keen to put my educational disciplines to work through researching my family history. To me, it is endlessly fascinating to discover the lives of those who have gone before. There is much to learn, both from failures of life as well as the successes.
  4. I invest. I like to invest in toilets. With the advent of the internet, I can invest directly to buy an individual or community a toilet somewhere in the world and feel that I have made a small difference.
  5. I walk. I walk for health reasons. One of my new found goals is to stay age-related fit. That no longer means pursuing athletics, cricket or the football of my youth, long since cast aside. It does mean that I can muse and reflect as I walk. Walking is good for my mental health and well-being.
  6. I garden. As part of the development of our house, I invested in a greenhouse. Pottering in the greenhouse planting seeds and watching them grow is therapeutic for me. I am reminded that God does a great deal of work in gardens. I feel close to God in the greenhouse.

I have now spent forty-three months in retirement. That is one month of reflection for each year I worked, and I have learned a great deal about my self. As Christ-follower, I have confidence in the future and increasingly so as I discover more about my new life. The six aspects of my life cannot ever be a static list. As time marches on, I expect other interests to emerge. I could have added others to my list but have decided to keep my powder dry for now.

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Is it Possible to Lead a Balanced Life?

Finding the right way to balance my life is a huge and constant challenge. Deep down, I’m searching for a balanced life that can be sustained. Over the years, I’ve tried many different ways to achieve this. As I have observed others, I’ve noticed that people tend to be clustered at the far ends of the scale between too focused or too laid back. But it’s for the middle ground of balance that I yearn.

Where am I on the scales of life?

At one end of the scale, I’ve noticed that many I know are either too focused, too organised. These are the stressed and just little too close to workaholic. At the other end of the scale are those who take things much more as they come, enjoy moving between different things easily, perhaps too distracted, and just a little too close to chaotic. There are undoubted strengths and weaknesses of each position. It’s good to be clear and focused, just as it right to be available and flexible. Over my working life, I have tended to veer towards overwork.

Waking up to self-awareness

In the wake of a breakdown – I’m now recovering – I’ve had a huge wake-up call. As things stand at the moment I’ve become more self-aware of my own needs as a person and my significant need is to get and keep the balance I crave. I’ve found that I feel so much more fulfilled and at peace with myself when that happens. So how can I know when I’m in the red zone or running smoothly? And what’s more, how can I make changes or who do I call on if things are skidding off course?

Finding what works for you

I have come to appreciate the following model. I don’t remember reading or hearing about this from anyone else, and I certainly can’t claim it to be original but, it works for me. My plan is simple. I divide my days into thirds. In a balanced and satisfying day, I enjoy a ‘three thirds’ day.

Each third offers a different form of activity, and it is the balance between these elements that provide the inner harmony I need. Too much of any one part and I soon feel that ‘out-of-sorts’ feeling. ‘Out of sorts’ leads to ‘out of balance’. And, out of balance means I don’t live out of a peaceful heart.

Of course, I can stay in one area more than I would choose if the situation demands it, but not for long and before long the warning sign begins to appear. My capacity is much reduced these days and a wrong balance results in a quicker depletion than it used to. My safeguard is that I come back to my ‘three thirds’ rule.

Simplicity is the key

Here’s my simple approach. Ideally, each day should contain:

1 Some time on my own, writing, study, prayer, administration. I need to be on my own.

2 Some time with others, meetings, mentoring, visits, calls, prayer. I need to be with other people.

3 Some time relaxing, resting, exercising, doing something different. I need to invest in myself.

Making a balanced audit 

How did I better understand my need for balance? With the help of others, I audited my waking hours by writing down the things that I found replenishing or draining. I asked what makes me feel good or helps me give my best? Where and when do I make my best contributions? What depleting activities should I avoid or seek to minimise?

Getting support

By talking things through with trusted colleagues and friends, they helped me to rebuild my productivity around the things that where I contribute best. I have found that others were only too willing to take some things from me, sometimes because my draining activity was their replenishing activity. That’s the wonder of working and living with a great team of people. I’m blessed.

I can’t say that I have mastered pacing my life completely, but I enjoy the days when there is a ‘three thirds’ balance. On these days, I feel so much more productive, more relaxed and more fulfilled. And right now, that’s really important.