Recently we saw two gruesome celebrity suicides. Not gruesome because of their method of death, but because the two who ended their own lives had so much for which to live. America is shaking its head in disbelief.
Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain did not have it easy from the start. Success was hard and surprising. She had the guts to leave a famous magazine to start what became a wildly successful fashion business. He had the guts to write about his addictions after securing a culinary position that was well worth keeping. They jeopardized everything for their dreams and convictions and made their dreams come true.
My father’s death certificate does not read “suicide.” It reads “heart attack” and “cerebral hemorrhage.” He died just as suddenly as Spade and Bourdain and left just as many holes in the universe. But, one could point to a type of suicide. His doctor did. “Arthur, you are killing yourself with a knife and fork.” He was told this many times, until the time his body exploded from obesity.
He too was a roaring success. Putting himself through law school at night, teaming up with Abraham Beam, who became mayor of New York City. My father had a terrible stutter, yet he ran for and won political office. Remarkable, as those were the days when you attracted almost all your voters by making speeches. He wrote the speeches and stood at the podium while someone else read what he had written…and he won. Just like Spade and Bourdain, he had guts.
Now, this is a blog about successful aging. So, you may wonder how these deaths—two quick suicides and a protracted one—relate to the topic. I think it’s time for me to say it out loud.
For too many people, retirement is an act of suicide. We are largely unaware of the enormity of the retirement life transition. We are walking through a new door. A door for which we have worked all our lives to open. That door could equally read “Success.” After we pass through that door, we are confronted by a new sign. It reads, “Now What?”
You cannot answer that question if every one of your dreams has come true. Fortunately, you probably have many dreams that are yet unfulfilled. Please don’t give them up.
To live life well, having dreams come true is simply not good enough. You must create more dreams.
My son made fun of me the other day when I said that getting an agent at CAA, the famous talent agency, was a longtime dream. “Why are you laughing?” I asked. He said, “Because you have so many longtime dreams.” I answered him without a thought, “Yes, so I have backups if any should come true.”
I want to explain to him that while it takes guts to fulfill dreams, it may take even more to have them in the first place.
On June 10th my radio show, Generation Bold: The Fountain of Truth, aired a segment on a New York University project that solicited positive images of aging from its students. Dr. Bei Wu, co-director of the school’s “Aging Incubator,” which coordinates the study of aging across the university, along with co-director Dr. Josh Chodosh were my guests. I asked Dr. Wu, who holds academic positions in both the US and China, why the Chinese see their elders so differently than we do. Her answer was “productivity.”
Keeping the family together and supporting the next generation in a variety of ways (not necessarily financially) is a requirement of aging in China. No one retires in our sense of the word—Chinese elders instead move on to facilitate the dreams of others. Chinese culture hands you a post-retirement path. It can be fulfilling. But in the West, we like to make our own paths. And many of us choose a path that is—let’s be honest—the opposite of productivity.
I propose a combination of East and West. After retirement, we can nurture dreams for ourselves as well as for others. Here we have the means and freedom, and finally the time, to fulfill those dreams.
Where does this lead? Retirement should not be a time of arrival. It should be a time of transition to new goals for ourselves, our families and the world.
Two of our finest celebrity icons are gone. We don’t know precisely why. And because we all have so many unfulfilled dreams, we are incredulous of their desire to stop living. Of course, mental illness can take people from themselves, and from us, regardless of their worldly circumstances. But, look around you. Don’t be so surprised when the successful have overwhelming problems. No matter how flimsy, foolish, grand or unattainable, when dreams stop, so do you.
When retirement asks you “What’s next?”, have an answer.