Actually, struggling was too strong a word. This previously feisty woman, always full of zest and resourcefulness, was resigned, apathetic even. And she wasn’t the first old friend whose sad transformation I’d recently encountered. In fact, I’ve been through a series of lunches, coffees, calls and emails from old friends who are hitting the same general wall at pretty much the same moment. Sadly, the statistics bear my experiences out.
• According to a survey conducted by AARP, pre-retirement baby boomers ages 50-64 are more deeply anxious about the economy than both younger and older cohorts. Two-thirds are neither hopeful nor confident they will reach their financial goals and half don't think they'll ever be able to retire.
• In a study by the Pew Research Center, boomers are the gloomiest of all age groups about their finances, leading all the other generational cohorts on reporting that they've lost money on investments since the recession hit. Nearly six in 10 say their household finances have worsened.
• A study by Ernst & Young, "Americans for Secure Retirement," found that middle-income Americans entering retirement over the next seven years will have to reduce their standard of living by as much as well over a third to minimize the likelihood of outliving their financial assets.
Amongst my friends, one had gotten laid off and was going too quickly through savings. Another was already living on social security and having had no kids, worries about who will take care of her when she’s too old to do things like pay her own bills. Martins, the friend who had blown into town for lunch had kept her job, but was working frenetic hours at a career she’d burned out on years ago. Her financial adviser had run her numbers, and told her that unless she continued on at this pace for five more years, she’d run out of money at 87. “At this pace, I won’t last five more years, and what a waste my life would have been, that I never got the chance to do the things I’ve dreamt about in retirement.”
“You know me as a powerful person, always ready to do my utmost?” she asked. “How can I do that when it’s hopeless.” I listened deeply, poked around enough to know that she had done everything in her power to address the situation, like downsizing, bringing on expert financial advice, seeking out friends like me for perspective. But I had no answers, no solutions, no roadmap. I listened, I hugged her goodbye, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her and what more I could have done.
This morning, I woke up with it—the missing piece. What I realized is this: that no matter how much evidence is piled up against us that we have blown our opportunity for greatness, how much fear we have that we are paying for old mistakes, wasted precious time, burned out trying to get the world to do what we want in order to make life less painful, we always have a choice. There may be absolutely nothing about our external circumstances that we can do anything about. But we can always choose to take the leap from victimhood to forgiveness—of ourselves, others and the world. We can be patient with the present moment and we can always choose to light at least one candle of hope that the future will find some surprising, unexpected way to defy our dimmest expectations.
I remembered a wonderful quote from Olive Schreiner who wrote for many of us in Dreams of the Hunter. Olive provides us with a role model of how someone who is truly defeated by life’s circumstances, can yet find meaning in life.
“I have sought; for long years, I have labored….Now my strength is gone. Where I lie down worn out, other men will stand, young and fresh. By the stairs that I have built, they will mount. They will never know the name of the man who made them. At the clumsy work they will laugh; when the stones roll they will curse me. But they will mount, and on my work; they will climb, and by my stair.”
Dear God, Life has let me down and I have fallen short of my aspirations. I’m unhappy in the present moment and worried about the future. And yet, here and now, I stand before You making the one choice that is always mine to make: to pay heed to You who always stands ready and able to beckon my spirit to venture forth again.