… I retired from work last year after looking forward to it for years. But in reality I'm finding it very hard. I'm in good enough health, but I've changed for the worse. I'm sometimes very snappish with my wife who is as good as gold, and I hate myself for it. Our son and our grandchildren come round every few weeks for a visit, I love to see them coming but even while they’re here I'm feeling empty and lost. My wife got her friend to mention counselling to me (I know she did), but that makes me feel like I'm losing my mind or something. I like your common sense answers to questions and I wondered if you had any advice for me…. Tony
It’s well documented that men don’t always enjoy retirement. Many suffer it, and their wives suffer it with them. Your day had a structure, your work gave you a position (we even call the job a ‘position’) and a sense of being valued and needed. But now you don’t know where you are. Your wife too is in changed circumstances. She was used to having the house to herself, and she certainly enjoyed not being snapped at. Some firms put on, or suggest, pre-retirement courses for their employees. Such a course would have helped a lot, I think; but it’s never too late to find a retirement course. You didn’t tell me where you are from, but if you google around a bit you are sure to find one not too far away.
Counselling: yes certainly. There was a time when people thought that going for counselling was like being taken away to an asylum by people in white coats. But now counselling is almost routine for anyone who is going through a transition in life: bereavement, separation, retirement…. I guarantee you that no counsellor will think you are mad or approaching madness. They will listen to you with respect, without intruding their own opinions, and they will encourage you to talk out your feelings just as you experience them. You won't have to make anything look good. They have no answers to your problem, but they know that you have, and they have the skill to help you find them. In an ideal world we would all relate to one another in this way, but our egotism gets in the way. Instead of listening when someone is talking, we are usually planning what to say next. I know a man who always says, when I've told him a story, “I'll tell you a better one.” And then he tells me a story that (my ego tells me) isn't half as good as mine. Most people don’t listen. But counsellors do. Most people avoid certain subjects with particular people. But counsellors don’t. They will listen without being shocked or embarrassed, and without judging you. This sets you free to talk about things you would never mention in the pub or out of it. For each of our friends and acquaintances we have a different exclusion list of topics, but a counsellor has none.
There’s another counsellor, the one I want to talk about now. Our ordinary life has all the resources to heal and fulfil us. The problem is that we don’t usually live our ordinary life. We don’t look at trees or grass or clouds – we think those things have nothing to do with us; if we see weeds it is with murderous intent. We don’t taste our food – we’re in too much of a hurry. We can't sit still, we have to keep moving. But when we move we prefer to drive, so all the restlessness goes into the mind and is not worked out through the body. Our mind then becomes a cauldron of overheated thoughts and fears and fantasies. We only see what’s in our minds, so we can never be surprised. That means that we are constantly bored. Pumped up and bored at one and the same time. Life around us is constantly changing – an ever-varying pattern – yet we say, “There’s nothing happening around here.” Look out the window! Just think what John B. Keane saw from his window. He saw material for his plays. Or think of Dylan Thomas. From his window he too saw (or imagined) material for a play, Under Milk Wood. It doesn’t have to be a big place, outside your window. The fictional village in Under Milk Wood was calledLlareggub. Read the name backwards and you’ll see what was going on there. Our ordinary life, as I say, has all the capacity to heal us and enchant us. There is no such thing as an insignificant place, if we have eyes to see it. “You have to go out of your mind,” someone said, “and come to your senses.” See, taste and smell, and touch and listen to the world around you. Thomas Moore (not the poet, but the psychotherapist) wrote a very valuable book in 1996 called The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. I recommend that you beg, borrow, or buy it. When we fall out of love with life, he said, it becomes just a series of problems.
A suggestion: think of yourself as a patient recuperating from the madness of a work-life. Everything now at last can be fresh for you, and you have time to live. Brendan Kennelly wrote a poem called ‘Begin’ after he had been discharged from hospital. Below is the text of the poem.
Don’t be impatient with yourself. It takes time to adjust. If you can say “I'm going from worse to bad,” that's good! Take care, Tony. Enjoy!
Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of the light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark,
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing, though with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.