Why is it hard?
For anyone, retirement can be hard. Major life transitions can be emotionally demanding, and for some of us, particularly those of us who are more task-orientated it can feel like moving from usefulness to uselessness, and western European culture does little to dispel this impression. Even if you hated your job, waking up in the morning with nothing to do can be depressing. For mission workers, even more so. They go from one extreme to the other, possibly at a time in life when the physical impact of ageing is also having a discouraging impact on them, and when they may have reduced ability to withstand the challenge of re-entry. Some of the major issues include:
- Activity. Moving from the enthusiasm of having a mission and a calling to endless days of inactivity can be a major challenge. Much of our life in missions is characterised by a sense of purpose as well as great busyness. Our days are filled with travel, activity, conferences and phone calls. While we may long for a bit of time to call our own, and to be able to lie in rather than rush out of the house to a meeting, the novelty can quickly wear off and leave us feeling a lack of purpose in our lives. We can become listless and even depressed. Some people in this situation even lose the desire to live, because their lives now feel empty. Even something as simple as the loss of a daily routine can be profoundly destabilising to some of us.
- Identity. Many of us will retire from a position as a senior and respected leader in the community, an influential person in the agency, or a much-loved ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ in the local church. We feel valued and honoured in our community, and are accustomed to people seeking our advice. Quite possibly we’ve been living in a country which has great respect for older people, and we are accustomed to being helped and honoured. And then we move to a western country where we are just another old person. We’re viewed by the young as decrepit and irrelevant. A fast-moving culture has no time to pause for us and we’re pushed out of the way – sometimes literally. Our opinion is not valued and our advice is not sought. This loss of identity can be acute, and can lead to loss of self-esteem and even depression.
- Powerful emotions. Dylan Thomas’ poem Do not go gentle into that good night suggests that ‘Old age should burn and rave at close of day’. It is quite natural for those of us who love to think that we are more youthful, athletic and energetic than we really are to have to deal with strong emotions as we are confronted with the inevitable reality that we are drawing towards the end of our lives here on earth. However these negative feelings may also be compounded by anger and resentment if we have been retired against our wishes, for whatever reason. Coming to terms with this, alongside the challenge of dealing with reverse culture shock can lead to some powerful emotions. The loss of a career or ministry can feel very much like bereavement, with the accompanying emotions. It’s important to have a thorough debrief on return, and follow it up where appropriate with ongoing pastoral support and possibly time spent with a life coach or counsellor. We suggest ARREST, Interhealth or Healthlink360 for these services. In preparation for this, you might like to use our checklists to review your experiences and feelings.
In order to tackle these problems of lack of activity we need to take steps to find things that we can constructively do with our time (see below) and above all recognise that ageing is a transition into another phase of life which God calls us to walk through. We have been through many such transitions before, and God does not leave us to do this alone. Reminding ourselves that our identity is in Christ, that God loves us no matter how old we are, and that we are of such immense value to Jesus that he gave his life for us can help us to cope with the fact that we are becoming increasingly frail and the society around us does not hold us in high regard. We need to understand that God does not write us off and continues to have a plan and purpose for our lives right up to the final day.
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.