Even in the second halves of our lives, we still have things to learn. One lesson I have found very challenging is how to do nothing. Being idle is not a skill that was needed in much of our lives to date – quite the opposite. Time and energy were the ultimate scarce resources when we were getting our education, developing our social relationships and building careers.
For many, children, our own and those from blended families, kept us hopping for a decade or two. Memories of my 20s when I was studying, working and raising little kids are a blur. I seem to recall that I could not sit down quietly for more than ten minutes without falling asleep. That was not so much of a problem as I almost never got a chance to sit quietly for ten minutes.
Kids get bigger and take even more time and effort, albeit of a different kind. Try to keep a fridge full enough to satisfy growing teenagers. And then one slips into the sandwich generation caught between growing but still dependent children and aging parents. Everyone wants and needs a part of you. In the meantime, work, which used to be a Monday to Friday, nine to five effort now haunts you 24/7, your life controlled by the buzzing device in your purse or pocket.
Then one day you begin to notice things have changed. We leave our jobs, reduce our hours or just change our attitudes so we no longer treat every text or email as an immediate and urgent summons. Maybe we turn into consultants and choose to work less. Maybe there is less work available.
Kids do launch and, with luck, become your nice adult friends. Parents and the older generation eventually turn into beloved memories. We do not want to admit that we are now becoming the older generation. And one day, amazing as it may seem, you find yourself with nothing to do.
If you are or were a workaholic like me, this is really scary. For decades, the only time I ever had to do things like read a novel was when I was too sick to go to work. Then along came computers and email. Now even if you were too ill to go into the office or even talk, you could still keep working.
Reaching a stage where there really is nothing to do, even for an hour or two, is a shock to the system. Work is now controllable and finite. Family demands are fewer. Grandkids can be handed back to their parents. Even dinner can become a quick and easy (and healthy) soup or salad rather than a major production every night.
To cope with this astounding change, I have developed a new motto. If there is nothing to do, it is okay to do it. This idea is one I had to give myself permission to follow. I do not have to feel guilty if I spend an afternoon reading a novel. I can get my exercise by going out for an easy jog or a leisurely walk in a nice place rather than hitting a machine in a noisy gym or dank basement for 20 sweaty minutes. I can call up a friend (hopefully at the same stage of life) for a chat or even meet for coffee or lunch.
Perhaps we should compare our lives to a nice old fashioned work week where you put in your time for five days and then had a couple of days off. By the time we get to fifty and beyond, we have put a lot of time and effort into families, careers, and communities. Maybe it is now time to say the equivalent of TGIF and enjoy the weekend of our lives.
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