Retirement is a more loaded proposition than I realized when I first decided to do it. In our society, we are overly defined by our jobs: Ask any stay-at-home mother about the ego-deflating reaction she gets when she answers the question, “What do you do?” If you aren’t out making money and proving your productivity, you are an unidentifiable blur. One pitfall of retirement is that when we are done doing, we might feel done being.
On the other hand, some of us put off retiring because we fear we are irreplaceable. We can’t leave now! We are essential! Who will do all the things we do? Who will keep this place running? We may feel trapped by our perceived necessity to our workplace. We may feel we owe it to our co-workers to keep the ship afloat. Consequently, we may wait too long to retire.
One of the lessons I have learned in retirement, however, is this: We are all replaceable.
I mean this in a good way, not in a faceless-cog-in-a-machine way. Being irreplaceable is not the same as being unique.
I mean this in a good way, not in a faceless-cog-in-a-machine way. Being irreplaceable is not the same as being unique. We are, of course, created by God as unique souls, fearfully and wonderfully made and all that, intimately known and loved by God as our individual selves. But we are totally replaceable in the marketplace. Professional life for everyone else goes on.
There is freedom in this realization.
I thought of this as I watched the absolutely unique American gymnast Simone Biles withdraw from Olympic competition in Tokyo on behalf of her mental health. One would have thought that Ms. Biles was surely irreplaceable in terms of our team’s shot at gold medals and glory. But her withdrawal, which was the right and healthy choice for her personally, made room for another American gymnast, Suni Lee, to take her place in the spotlight. And Ms. Lee won gold in the women’s individual all-around final. Several other American gymnasts got the chance to compete in events for which they had not previously qualified. They got to “rise to the occasion,” as my literary heroine Anne of Green Gables always said. “Simone Biles Can’t Be Replaced,” ran a CBS sports headline, but guess what? We can all be replaced. Without Simone Biles, the American team won the silver medal. And perhaps America got a lesson in the unexpected grace of knowing one’s limits and of being replaceable.
Feeling irreplaceable in what we do for a paycheck may actually prevent us from awakening other gifts, other talents, other missions, other callings.
A tweet from Simone Biles herself makes the point best: “the outpouring [of] love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
She is much more. As are we all. Believe it.
The classic warning story—that no one on their deathbed ever expressed the wish that they’d spent more time at the office—is applicable to the folly of falling into the chasm of Irreplaceable Syndrome. Feeling irreplaceable in what we do for a paycheck may actually prevent us from awakening other gifts, other talents, other missions, other callings. It may blind us to our obligations to the people we love. It may make us ill, mentally, physically or spiritually. When we realize we are replaceable, we give ourselves permission to move on. We can close that work chapter with a clear conscience. We can take a different job. We can quit our day job and follow an enduring dream. We can learn a new skill. We can retire. We can rediscover things we used to love, used to do, before we became so irreplaceable.
I have found that there’s more to life than work. That I am replaceable in my job but urgently needed in other roles and relationships in my life.
I once imagined I was irreplaceable. My solution was to find the perfect replacement so that I could go elsewhere with peace of mind. I left that job in what I thought were good hands. My replacement had worked alongside me and knew how everything should run. I was confident that every program I had started would continue without a hitch. “I hope I don’t mess up,” my replacement wrote in a farewell card from the whole staff, which should have given me pause. Within a short time, I heard that my hand-picked replacement had been let go for having broken a bunch of workplace rules and perhaps a law. But the lesson for me was not that I was irreplaceable: It was that I had failed in my choice of replacement. I could only hope with all my heart that the departure of my replacement led to an opening for an unknown person with young blood and fantastic ideas to take over and rule that job.
Having finally retired, I understand that retirement is not as easy as going to work one day, and then simply not going the next. You may feel disloyal for leaving your position. You may second guess the whole retirement deal. You may worry you’ll commit the sin of irrelevance the next time someone asks you, “What do you do?” You may question your financial decisions. You may miss your co-workers. You may feel paralyzed by the weird amount of time on your hands. You may feel at loose ends without the structure of your job. You may crave the satisfaction of and praise for a job well done. You may even feel nostalgic for the work situations that drove you crazy. I experienced all of these things.
But I have also found that there’s more to life than work. That I am replaceable in my job but urgently needed in other roles and relationships in my life. And that I still have plenty of work to do to flesh out and fulfill the unique person God created me to be.