Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

Meaning Replacement Therapy

Retirement begins with a transition from one major stage of life (work) to another (no work, or much less).

There’s plenty to gain in the newfound freedom, yet undeniably, there’s also loss.

Leaving work and a workplace usually entails losing long-held purpose, friends and contacts who naturally fade without the same proximity, and for many people, a large part of their identity.

The prospect of those losses can be frightening, especially to those devoted to their work and highly identified with what they do at work. Doctors, professors, and entrepreneurs come to mind. But whatever our work, it’s common for it to be one of the most important parts of our life. We lose a big slice of ourselves.

So how do we mitigate the pain of that loss? How do we soften the emotional impact of suddenly being bereft of something so important?

I believe this: Loss of purpose, friends, and identity can be softened with preparation. If you see it coming, you can de-fang it. People cannot be replaced, but purpose, social contacts, and where we find our identity can be.

“Meaning is not a property of the world, but something we attach to the world,” wrote Norwegian novelist, Karl Ove Knausgaard in My Struggle: Book 6.

I believe we can do for ourselves (or with assistance) a sort of meaning-replacement therapy, a way of attaching meaning to new things or relationships in place of that which has been lost. It’s the meaning that’s vital, not the thing or even the relationship.

At risk sounding facile, meaning replacement therapy — even for what we identify with — might start with a list. Lists are way to think and focus.

In this case, list your losses on one side of a page and, on the the other side, possible ways to replace each loss.

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Don’t worry about equivalent gravity at first. One side doesn’t have to equate precisely with the other. A job is a big thing. You might need several smaller things to replace its meaning. Aggregate weight is what matters.


This is probably obvious to inveterate list-makers. Or is it? How often do we write down ideas for our lives? Grocery lists, yes. Do-lists, yes. Life lists? I haven’t seen many. How often do we describe our goals and pull out the list to check in on ourselves, then maybe add or subtract as the experiment proceeds? It might not be obvious, but it might be helpful.

Include hunches. You might not know the meaning of some activities before you experience them, or change your story about them.

For example, your story about going to the gym might be that it’s only done when you can find time, it hurts, and you get bored within a few minutes. It doesn’t rank high on the hierarchy of meaning.

Or you could change the experience and thus the story. Make time. Stay at it for a couple of months. Join classes so you aren’t alone. Don’t miss them. Feel the strength of your new body and the calmness of your mind. Then genuinely desire the gym three or four times a week because it means something.

As you’ve probably figured out, the gym isn’t the meaning. Strong and fit and emotionally fortified are the meaning. (I am, in a small but not insignificant way, emotionally fortified by my gravity-resistant pecs, here in my seventh decade.)

I meet the same committed retired people at my gym every week. They just show up. For themselves. 

Typical is a retired teacher named Maureen. She’s there most mornings. The gym has become an important part of her life. It has assumed meaning it didn’t have when she worked. It’s one of her meaning-replacement activities. Those mornings in that place mean a lot to Maureen. Her job, now in the past for seven or eight years, has receded appropriately into fond memories as her physical health has gained in significance and commitment.

Meaning is transferable. And with the right story (to yourself), it might not be as difficult to replace as it seems.


Feel free to email me about this post.
I probably can’t respond but would appreciate your insight or story or query, which I might refer to in a future post.

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