When Gravitas Fades After Retirement

Gravitas is a virtue Ancient Romans once described as a “seriousness.” Dignity, importance, and restraint are weighty words also associated with the term. And for the purposes of this article, I’ll add that it’s a compilation of characteristics implying wisdom, experience, and strength of character.

We can expect gravitas to be a good travel companion as we move into the future. Yet when gravitas is too tightly woven into who we were at work, the transition out of career and into retirement can be filled with self-doubt. That’s Kryptonite to gravitas.

We become stuck.

When Wistful Longing Dislodges Our Sense of Self

I recently binged on reruns of the television drama, Boston Legal. Star Trek’s William Shatner plays a successful attorney suffering from the onset of dementia. Due to diminished faculties, he floats between professional brilliance and emotional incapacity.

Shatner chats with his best friend at the end of each episode. Over time he reveals a growing level of angst about the agonizing loss of his grip on reality. After one particular experience gone rancid, he says: “I wish I’d never been great.” His nonplussed friend asks why he’d wish to erase the very thing that brought fame and fortune. With touching irony, Shatner replies, “Because I remember it.”

If we remove the aspect of dementia from the story, like Shatner, those of us who feel overly nostalgic for the past begin to resent their current circumstance. We remember how potent we were, awash in a swirl of purposeful activity. We unfairly compare our stature in retirement to our stature at the apex of our careers. And when that nostalgia turns into preoccupation, it becomes toxic, leading to depression and a sense of grief that’s difficult to climb out of.

As a coach, writer and teacher, I’ve been witness to varying degrees of what I call Regretful Longing. A longing that occurs when disproportionate emphasis is placed on what we did and who we were in the past. It prevents us from globally positioning ourselves to face new opportunities.

Why We Must Nurture Gravitas

Gravitas is built on a foundation of personal experience. Good times. Tough times. Joys. Sorrows. Lessons learned. Opportunities lost and won. Passions explored.

Our accumulated wisdom can support us as we navigate the path ahead. Serve as an optimistic guide when life offers unfamiliar choices.

If we can form a solid connection with the present, fully grasp the difference between who we are now and what we did then, we would recognize opportunities that can lead us toward a balanced future. Create health and happiness. Enrich the quality of our lives. Place our hard-earned gravitas on display.

Here’s a way forward.

Recalculate the Arc of Your Life

This will take an hour, but it will be well worth the time.

Make a list of the major segments in your life. Childhood, the teen years, young adulthood (your twenties), midlife (thirty to fifty), pre-retirement (fifty to sixty five), and retirement.

Under each category list the following: your passions, challenges, high points, low points, dreams for the future, and your imagined life trajectory at each point. Then, on a scale of 1 – 10, rate your level of life satisfaction for each time period.

Don’t complete the life satisfaction segment until you’ve finished the rest of the exercise. If you do, it will be difficult to have a balanced sense of your satisfaction over the arc of time. Try not to judge your responses. You’ll stall out if you do.

When done, circle the commonalities shared between the categories.

Do you recognize any patterns? Are you surprised by how you got to where you are? Or is who you are now quite expected. Upon examination you should see with more clarity, the following:

  • Where your strongest passions live
  • How you’ve handled the big challenges
  • Lessons you’ve learned from the review of your low and high points
  • How helpful your imagined life trajectory was as a precursor to your present situation
  • Directional clues for building a future that incorporates your strengths, passions, and dreams

By thoughtfully executing the steps above, the axis of your feelings will have swung away from the past and moved toward the exploration of a well-considered future. A life based on who you are in this current moment.

And when you’re on your way toward achieving your goals, mentor someone coming up behind you.

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