October 13, 2013 by Jean
For many years now, I have understood my well-being to be supported by four legs – connection to nature, connection to self, connection to others and meaningful work – but I have found it difficult to live a balanced life with room for all four. As long as I have three of my four legs in place, I am happy enough; in rare periods when I have had all four in place, I have been euphoric.
During my long career as a college professor, the leg I’ve paid least attention to has been meaningful work. Both teaching and research have been very rewarding activities that I take for granted as part of my life. I have been lucky enough to teach subjects (sociology and women’s studies) that have an immediate impact on how students see the world and understand their own lives. Their growth during the course of a semester is exciting; and it’s even more rewarding to hear from them years later about how I’ve influenced their lives. Research has been rewarding in a different way, allowing me to explore questions and life experiences that are meaningful to me and to others.
But my meaningful work can be all-absorbing, requiring intensive commitments of time and energy that make it difficult to balance with other parts of life. To some extent, I have kept my four legs of well-being in place by dividing them in time. When school is in session, I work long hours and use my daily walks to and from work (1 mile each way) as an opportunity for some minimal connection with nature and with self. Connection to others (aside from my students and colleagues) tends to get put aside during these months. When school is not in session, however, (especially during the summer months) I try to redress the balance, spending only a few hours a week on work and taking time to connect with friends and family. During these months, I also spend many hours outdoors connecting with nature by walking or working in my garden and taking time for quiet hours of solitude and reflection.
I am expecting my retirement to look more like summer than like the school year, with time for the three legs of connection with nature, self and others. But as the end of my teaching career gets closer, I am realizing that I can no longer take that fourth leg of well-being for granted. What will replace my current meaningful work? Answering this question requires figuring out what makes work meaningful for me. I think the answer has two parts – (1) feeling as though I am making a difference in the world or in others’ lives and (2) feeling as though I am being challenged intellectually and creatively. In retirement, it may not be easy to combine those two components in the same activity, and I will probably need to address them separately. Making a difference can come both through volunteer work and through taking time to attend more to the needs of family and friends. Meeting my needs for intellectual and creative challenge might come through research and writing, gardening, sewing, and taking courses (e.g., the Master Gardener certification course, classes in sewing and tailoring, and maybe some senior college courses in subjects I’ve long wanted to study).
Will there really be enough hours in the day or week to do all this? It will be interesting to see if finding balance is any easier in the years to come.