Graduating seniors are often tormented by a question: Is there life after college? We have always answered with a resounding YES! We argue that the glory of liberal education is preparation for a full and satisfying life.
Is there life after retirement? Again we answer YES! And once again, the answer is in the long-lingering aftertaste of liberal education. I speak of this personally as well as academically. Now, in semi-retirement, my liberal arts experience sustains me every day.
Here are a series of things I have found useful. You may find them useful too, looking forward to retirement years, looking back at your life at Colorado College.
- Stay physically active at any level you find possible. Robert Hutchins, the legendary leader of the University of Chicago, supposedly once said: “Whenever I feel like exercising, I lie down until that feeling goes away.” Hutchins was WRONG! A good friend on the faculty said to me recently that you get energy from exercise. Physical activity was good for you here, on athletic teams, in intramurals, in the mountains. It is good for mind and body now.
- Don’t be a recluse; associate with people all the time. Computers and television are beguiling, but they can be isolating and solitary enterprises. In contacts, conversation, and relationships with other people, my mind seems to race and my body jump-starts. Think of the many rewarding personal associations you had here, in the dorms, in classes, in activities, in social life. Pursue wide associations now.
- Cultivate passionate involvement with public affairs. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said, “It is required of everyone to share in the actions and passions of their time, at the peril of being judged not to have lived.” In classes, in evening lectures, in extracurricular activities, the college once brought the world to the campus when you were a bright-eyed student here. Involvement in public affairs is particularly valuable in retirement years.
- Be involved in what might be called a second career in voluntary organizations, in book and discussion groups, as a docent in museums and zoos. My wife, who is a central figure in the education program at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, says it is better to be a volunteer than an employee. As a volunteer, YOU are always in charge. You were involved in many organizations here: social, political, recreational. Within reason, do that again now. Those are life-giving involvements that can be calibrated to your interests and capacities.
- Travel as much as possible within your means. Allow yourselves to be seduced by strange and new places, distant cultures, unfamiliar people. I think of what my wife and I derived from a safari in Tanzania two years ago. We looked into the eyes of lions and sat very, very quietly while surrounded by a herd of pushing elephants. What vitalizing moments! Many of you were involved in off-campus programs in your college years. You remember what mind-blowing experiences they were. Activities far away from home are a vitalizing option for you now.
- Associate with young people wherever possible. Professor Glenn Gray, who was my teacher and colleague when I first came here, used to say when looking at the troubled world that there are no grounds for optimism but there are grounds for hope. In my view, hope is based on the creative possibilities of young people — students at CC, for example. I think of that every day when I look at the bright and beautiful faces in my classes. Contacts with young people can be that fountain of youth Ponce de Leon once sought in the Florida wilderness. In a way, you can return to your college years by cultivating young people now.
- Try to do something worthwhile, for the benefit of other people. Some of you remember reading Albert Camus’ marvelous novel, “The Plague”. In one passage, Dr. Rieux’s friend Tarrou said that in the midst of plagues (terrible events in the world) he wanted to achieve peace; Rieux asked him if he had any idea how to do that. Yes, said Tarrou, through “the path of sympathy.” That is not a bad answer, looking at the terrors and problems of our world today. Many of you did selfless community work when you were here. Do it again now.
- Take delight in the beauty of this fragile and beautiful earth we are privileged to inhabit. Perhaps you remember Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond. There he found solace in the mystery, peace, and beauty of nature. Remember the joy you found in the mountains that loom over Colorado Springs. They and other places are there now, waiting to delight you.
- Cultivate the arts. In our busy working lives, we may not often have had enough time to quiver in front of a van Gogh painting or gasp at the slow movement in a Mozart concerto. Now is the time to enjoy the embellishment of life and exultation of spirit the arts can bring. You tasted the arts when you were here. Now you have the time to relish them to a greater degree.
- Delight in the new. We are surrounded, bombarded by dazzling developments in science, in the arts, in technology, in every aspect of life. Many are disturbing, but they are all interesting! Michelangelo, blind, at the age of 90, is said to have run his hands over a statue and murmured, “I still learn, I still learn.” The habit of learning you cultivated here can stand you in good stead now.
These are things you can enjoy in retirement. But there is another level that involves attitudes or casts of mind.
The first is memory. Preoccupation with the past seems to go with getting older. Those memories can be intense indeed. It is easy to be paralyzed by them, frozen into inaction. I find myself sitting staring into space, transfixed by vivid, perhaps too vivid, images of the past, of old school friends, of incidents and shipmates in the war, of thousands of CC students. We all want to remember long-ago events and people. But in order to live well, we need to look at life around us now, not only back to the distant and frozen past.
Second, savor the joy of simple things, the ecstasy of peace, the face of a loved one or friend, the exquisite beauty of a bird sitting on a railing, the pleasure of a glass of clean water (a boon that half the world does not have). I often think of a scene in Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town”. Emily, the young women who died in childbirth, came back and visited the kitchen of her home. She saw the milkman and paperboy make their deliveries; she watched the family get up in the morning, her mother making breakfast, her little brother going off to school. Emily said, “We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.”
Third, look beyond material things. Of course, we all want to live comfortably. But the deepest satisfactions come from possessions of the spirit, from love and beauty, from high standards and expectations, from things that cannot be counted and quantified. They are the kinds of things we learned to value at CC.
Fourth, celebrate passion and compassion. Perhaps you read Tolstoy’s wonderful short novel, “The Death of Ivan Ilych”, when you were at CC. You remember that at the end of his life, Ivan was tormented by a terrible question: Did I live my life well? He realized he had never really cared for anybody, not even his wife and children. He had treated them and everyone as objects, not subjects. As he lay dying, Ivan tried to ask them for forgiveness, but it was too late. Socrates argued that an unexamined life was not worth living. Looking at Ivan, we might also say that an insensitive life is not worth living. To be judged as having lived insensitively may be one of the harshest judgments of all.
Perhaps these activities and these attitudes will help you answer the question: Is there life after retirement? You tasted all these things when you were a student at CC. Remember Socrates’ famous maxim: the really important thing is not to live, but to live well. I used to quote Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome, to my freshman Western Civ class when it met at 8 a.m.: Is man made to stay in a warm bed on a cold morning, or is he made for better things? Here is another simple injunction from Marcus Aurelius: Do the work, he said, of a human being.