On the first of September in 2017, I retired from a career of 42 years of active ministry as a United Methodist ordained clergyperson. I served in the local church for the first 12 of those years and then continued in institutional ministry as an ACPE Educator for the next 30. This shift was one of my major life changes, and with it came processes of letting go and reclaiming.
Major Life Changes
I had a successful career within both the institutions that employed me and the professional chaplain organizations which had certified me as an educator and chaplain. It had not been my intent to retire in 2017, but events in the previous year brought me to that point quickly. My mother, who I had been caring for due to her dementia, had died the year before, at the age 94. My 93-year-old father, who I continued to care for, weakened and had to be moved to assisted living (against his desire).
In January 2017 I had a heart attack while at a remote location. As I traveled to the hospital for a heart catheterization scheduled for the next day, I was told by the EMT that “my heart was pissed off.” Suddenly the sirens came on the ambulance and the gas pedal was “put to the metal.” I was given an emergency catheterization. Less than a month later my father died. In March I announced that I was retiring at the end of the CPE year on September first. Two weeks later my bags were packed (as well as the truck) for a move to another city and a downsized house to begin a new life post-retirement.
When it came my time to retire, I was not caught off guard. I prepared for that transition much like I had for other major life changes such as parenting, developing a career, and aging. I saved money in my retirement accounts, I attended preretirement seminars, I read books, watched videos and talked to those who retired before me. And as a person who embraced Eriksonian development theory, I had lived my life with integrity so I would not despair in my “senior years.”
Journeying Toward Gratitude and Peace
I wish I could say that my preparation made the transitions involved in the major life changes easy. It did not. With so many important transition points happening in a 12-month window, my preparation seemed inadequate. As I grieved my parents, my position of authority, my career, my work colleagues, my former home, my invincible heart, and began to live into the many losses, it seemed that grief, depression, and sadness were my new colleagues.
Along the way I read John Leland’s book “Happiness is a Choice You Make.” It is about the conversations between Leland who is a New York Times journalist and six people who are among the “oldest old” in America. It gave a snapshot of how these six people are dealing with their end of life. With that I realized that I am also dealing with my end of life even though with my genetic structure I may have almost another 30 years to live. The choice I faced was whether I wanted to live it happily or with the grief, depression, and sadness that then occupied my living room.
Understanding Life as Three Periods
Then surprisingly a kind of working theory within the field of developmental psychology began to emerge within me. I call it the three Epochs of one’s life journey. An epoch is “A period of time in history or a person’s life, typically one marked by notable events or particular characteristics” (Google).
The Epochs that constitute our lives are Preparing, Acquiring and Releasing. In my personal history they actually fall neatly in about 30-year pockets each. I realize that not all individuals will have such an even distribution of years. I think, that if an individual around my age looks at his/her life from a 10,000 feet level, the person can claim a place in each Epoch.
Preparing – For these thirty years of life we spend the bulk of our time preparing for a successful life and career. Whether it is being born, learning to walk, going to school, dating, or intensive training for a specific professional life, we are preparing for the next step. This Epoch is full of apprehension, anticipation and concern for what is ahead. If we navigate it well, there is identity formation and competence.
Acquiring – For these thirty years of life we spend the bulk of our time acquiring the signs of success in both our lives and careers. Whether getting married, having children, buying a home or car, being hired for a desired job, or reach a specific professional position, we are acquiring those things that we determine give us worth. Some may say this is the time of the “rat race”. This Epoch is full of performance anxiety, desire and concern for what we have or do not have. If we navigate it well, there is accomplishment and generativity.
Releasing – For these thirty years of life we spend the bulk of our time releasing what we acquired in the previous Epoch. It is not easy. Our identity is tied up in the value of what we have acquired. Whether it is the death of our parents, a sibling, a good friend, the career in which we invested so much energy, the possessions we acquired, or our physical abilities that are diminishing, we are undergoing many major life changes and we take notice of both small and large losses. The longer we live, the more objects we have to release in order to live healthy. This Epoch is full of grief, depression, and sadness for we are having to release each day. If we navigate it well, there is gratitude, acceptance, and peace.
I have found looking at mine and other’s lives as moving through these Epochs allows me to understand my life space. As a baby boomer facing major life changes and having to move into this space, I know I am not alone.
- Major Life Changes: The Three Epochs of One’s Life Journey - April 24, 2020