Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, wrote: “The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly — that is what each of us is here for.”
I believe that. And I see the final third of our lives — retirement — as a time to devote to self-development, self-actualization, being your best.
When I’ve said this to others in discussions about what to do in retirement, I’ve seen two kinds of reactions.
Some people instantly agree. They understand the idea that we can practice being better humans. And that it takes practice. Unhurried, un-harried practice.
But others see “self” and their minds go to “selfish.” They see inward focusing as a navel-gazing indulgence.
I don’t. Here’s why: our effect on others and the world — what emanates from inside outward.
Every time we interact with another person we have an effect and an opportunity.
Think of the effect we as adults can have on children. To consistently greet them with a smile and purposefully help cultivate their self-esteem is to contribute to the molding of the next generation, to help shape characters that will possibly emanate for a century, hopefully in benevolent ways. Do that with ten grandchildren and it might be the most important legacy of your life.
Likewise, by degree, we exert an effect on everyone we encounter.
A small example: A few days ago, I inadvertently angered a parking lot attendant by failing to stamp my card, forcing him to leave his booth and do it for me. With a sneer, he expressed mild disgust, as if I was an idiot. In the time it took for him to stamp the card and return to me I had a choice. I could respond to his hostility with some of my own, which was my temptation. Or I could smile sheepishly and say something lightly self-deprecating. I struggled. But I chose the second option. My smile alone disarmed him. He smiled back. I said, “I’m sorry, we’re from out of town.” He said, “Not a problem. It happens all the time. Have a good day.”
That could have gone badly and left us both with a dose of bile, souring our moods, which could then reverberate to others we encountered afterward. But without cost to me, the opposite occurred. Rather than become toxic, that little situation became redemptive. Decency prevailed.
(Here’s another great example of the high road taken.)
I won’t say that in all such circumstances I would react as calmly. It takes awareness and practice. I’m capable of being less decent, even a jerk at times. (Hopefully, these days, less than ever.)
Now extrapolate. Indecent self-indulgence. Driven by anger and self-interest. Emanating from people across the world. Most frighteningly so when those people have power. If we are not universally in trouble because of that, then what else is to blame?
So is self-development self-indulgent?
On the contrary, it might be our best investment. And a worthwhile retirement project.