By Mary Petersen
So I retired…again… from a 37 year career teaching English that provided me joy and edification. It’s hard to know when to make that move. Three years ago I tried it. I retired from College of the Canyons at the behest of my retiring husband who cautioned me that I can’t reclaim these years. But I found myself eager to go back and teach a class. I missed the rapport with my students. I missed the camaraderie, teamwork, and special projects with my colleagues. As a valued and contributing member of my academic community I felt productive and essential. I couldn’t bear that I would no longer be affiliated with an institution that I respect and am so proud to be a part of. I couldn’t endure saying that I used to teach English. No longer a vibrant, active participant at the college, I feared I would be a shriveled, faded, forgotten version of myself.
So much of my identity is enmeshed in my profession. It affects how I perceive myself and how I imagine others perceive me. Passion drives us to create, explore, and accomplish, and I feared that the passion that drove me into education would collapse into a limp, dormant heap. Who would I be if I were no longer a professor? How would I define myself without my profession? No I was not ready for that.
As it turns out, this late identity crisis is really a thing. Renowned psychologist Erik Erikson identified it as the last of 8 stages of development, from age 65 years to death. (Full disclosure, I’m only 64 ½.) According to Erikson, each stage is characterized by a crisis which must be resolved. Apparently, during the late adult stage, retiring is the kind of challenge that can trigger an identity crisis. Peter K. Rimbach vividly captures the potential crisis in the hilarious title of his book Retirement: Life’s Mt. Everest: Man’s Journey Through Psychological Hell. I bet he didn’t want to retire either.
Cultural gerontologists have another name for those of us between ages 60-75, “Third Agers.” They scrutinize us like museum specimens, studying how we structure our days in the Third Age. What do we do in our leisure time? How have our social positions changed? What regrets do we have? What relationships are important to us? These concerned researchers explain that we must continue constructing our identity in the Third Age. It should be a time of re-engagement in society after having let go of former obligations and commitments. We’re encouraged to find value and purpose as we contemplate our accomplishments. Erikson says that if we see ourselves as leading a successful life we are able to develop an integrated sense of self. If we see our life as unproductive or feel that we did not accomplish our life goals, we become dissatisfied and develop despair, often leading to depression and hopelessness. Yikes! I don’t like that option.
I’m inspired by Joan Erikson, wife of Erik, who determined that a 9th stage exists, which she defined by the specific challenges of living in one’s eighties and nineties. She was 93 years old when she wrote a book about the psychosocial demands of living in this stage. That’s the ticket, sister! Keep the mind active and the passion invigorated.
Ok, I’m ready to “recalibrate my identity” as Netherlands professor Dr. Gerben Westerhof characterizes it. Armed with the knowledge of experts, I am reassured that this ongoing transformative process is perfectly natural in our unpredictable and ever-changing lives. Ebbing and flowing, adopting and letting go. I will be flexible and embrace possibilities. I can let go of teaching college freshmen, but retain my passion for teaching. I can relinquish being a colleague, but remain an active community member. It reminds me of a joke: When one door closes, another opens…or you can open the closed door. That’s how doors work.
Mary Petersen is a retired COC English Instructor, 30 year SCV resident, and two-time breast cancer survivor.