I recently had a vivid dream about getting a call from my professional licensing board telling me they were revoking my license because I was abusing pain medication. I tried to tell them I took no such drugs, that they were prescribed for Coco, my 15-1/2-year-old dog, who is in at-home hospice care. But they hung up on me, throwing me into a tizzy. While I intend to retire the end of next month, I wasn’t ready yet.
I ponder what my dream is trying to tell me. Certainly, I will miss seeing my patients, but my practice takes more out of me each year. At the age of 75, I admit I’ve lost a step. I no longer seem to have time for the other things I love: friends and family, photography, and playing around at writing.
Then again, some folks don’t realize what a job means to them until they no longer have it. And, I can’t deny that it makes my heart feel good when I can help a patient improve the quality of their life. Or is that just my ego talking, taking pleasure in my professional status?
Speaking of retirement and status, I gave a terrible title to my last column in this space: “Youth drives change, not us grizzled elders.”1 It ruffled the feathers of several older readers who emailed me to object. I never meant to imply that old people couldn’t make a difference; such people are all around us: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Granny D. What I ham-handedly was attempting to convey is a sociological fact: major social change doesn’t happen within a generation but between generations.
One reader, having recently retired—and perhaps having dreams like mine—wrote poignantly: “Are we really too old to make a difference, to participate, to be part of the change that needs to happen? Do we have nothing to offer?”
I think the missing ingredient that prompted her rhetorical question is something I, too, will have to contend with in the coming months: Will I still feel like a valued member of my community? Will I still be seen, or will I feel invisible? Being seen and appreciated is what sociologists call status and having it is essential to a person’s well being.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, status is not determined by how caring and giving you are or how essential you are to your family or community. Sadly, instead, our worth as a human being is largely determined by what we do for work and how good we are at it. That’s what we put on our résumés and brag about at cocktail parties. It’s no wonder that more and more of us feel left out, particularly after retirement.
Michael Sandel calls this the tyranny of merit in his new book by that same name.2 He says our emphasis on meritocracy is creating ever-widening inequality in our country, fueling the surging polarization that threatens to tear our country apart. On top of that, it has created a toxic economy of esteem.
As Elizabeth Anderson has written in a recent Nation article: “The winners in meritocratic competition feel entitled to take all they can, while the losers feel humiliated, continually told they deserve the fate to which elites consign them. However socially necessary their jobs may be, their contributions to the common good are disparaged by elites as uncredentialed and “low skill.”3
I appear destined, without either credentials or a job, to be assigned a seat in that same overloaded, low status boat. Yet, despite my musings, I am confident I can retain my self-esteem. When I was younger, I never had the time to smell the roses because I was overwhelmed with too much stuff I thought I needed to do. Finally, now is my opportunity to open myself fully to the present moment which, according to many wise people, is the road to enlightenment.
It is also a reminder that I will soon have to change my Concord Monitor byline4 to reflect these changes in my life: I will no longer be a psychotherapist, and Coco, most likely, will have departed to chase rabbits in doggie heaven. Yet I am not deterred: understanding that all life is change, I am looking forward to embracing a new, simplified byline: “Just another old person from Northwood.”
1 Concord Monitor, May 9, 2021.
2 The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
4 My current byline reads as follows: “Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. His blog can be found online at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.”