Finding Joy in Retirement ‹ Literary Hub

Welcome to Life Advice for Book Lovers, Lit Hub’s advice column. You tell me what’s eating you in an email to deardorothea@lithub.com and I’ll tell you what you should read next.

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Dear Dorothea,

I’m sixty. I just took my pension after having worked in the Quebec health system for forty two years. Yes, I survived COVID. I saw a lot of my old patients die and I had to work under less than ideal conditions. We were forced to wear masks, scrubs and gloves all day. Moreover, there was a lack of personnel because many employees got the bug. Therefore, the rest of us had to work like dogs but did not sleep like logs, afraid as we were of falling sick too. It was a time of distress.

So, I should feel joyful not going to work anymore but not as much as I think I would. I’m telling myself that I will finally be able to finish and polish the sci-fi series of adventure novels I started years ago. However, in the morning I feel a little bit depressed. I have trouble believing that the whole time of each new day (or at last a big part of it) can be spent pursuing my heart’s desires. It’s like Society is whispering in my utilitarian programmed brain: do something useful, start a garden, cook with your wife, find a part time job, study theology, etc. How can you believe that what you write will interest anybody?

Should I read positive thinking books although most of them are written by Republican car salesmen?

Thank you,
Morning Hope, Morning Sadness

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Dear Morning Hope,

First of all, huge congratulations on your retirement—and a huge thank you for being on the medical frontlines when the world needed you. I’m very sorry to hear that you lost some of your older patients, but I’m positive that you also saved so many lives. It’s because of you that your fellow Canadians get to wake up in the morning and go to their jobs and find their own usefulness in this place. Even if you aren’t actively practicing medicine right now, I hope you realize that your work continues to have a ripple effect.

It makes sense that this shift is so jarring. How could it not be? You went from being thrust into chaos every day to having a huge expanse of leisure time. That will definitely take some getting used to. Because of your chosen profession, you definitely strike me as someone who likes to feel useful, to be needed. But your value is not based on how much of yourself you are pouring out. You have put forty-two generous years into helping other people. Start a garden if you want to. Find a part-time job if that speaks to you. Study theology if you’re so inclined. But don’t do these things because you want to feel “useful.” There is a book that might quiet your service-oriented utilitarian brain. It’s a book I recommend to pretty much everyone I know: Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. It’s all about viewing our attention as a resource and reframing notions of “progress” and “productivity” for ourselves.

Now the question is: What’s going to be useful to you? You mention your heart’s desires but don’t get super specific about what those might be; I encourage you to follow what feels interesting to you right now. If you want to dance, turn on some music! If you want to paint, get your hands on some watercolors! If you want to write, all you need is a pen and some paper. I know a lot of authors get up on stage and talk about how they write for their readers, and that is wonderful, but that doesn’t always have to be true. You can write for yourself. Who cares if it’s interesting to anybody? If you find joy in putting one word in front of the last, then it’s worth pursuing.

All love,
Dorothea

PS Because you mentioned finishing sci-fi series, I thought I’d put my two-cents in about that. Personally, I find long series to be quite daunting. If that’s not a mountain you’re ready to climb yet, perhaps consider picking up a shorter journey: Sequoia Nagamatu’s How High We Go in the DarkJeff VanderMeer’s Hummingbird SalamanderKazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun—just a few good ones from recent memory.

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