Retirement or Refirement?

Retirement or Refirement?

Matthew Fox

December 2005

This month I reached my sixty fifth birthday.  I made the requisite pilgrimage to the Social Security Office in downtown Oakland, California where I have been living for the last twenty-two years to sign up for medicare and for a social security check.  So much done.

But what is the bigger picture?  What do I and the 79 million baby boomers who are rapidly closing in on their sixties really to make of our so-called ‘retirement’ years?

My own feeling is that baby boomers are not going to go quietly into that ‘sweet night’ called retirement.  I think we still have too much unfinished business from the sixties (or the seventies if you will) that is urging us along.  And we’ve got energy, lots of energy still.  And I think we want to tap into that unfinished business and the ideals that drove us then as we look at our lives today.

Okay, so most of us have raised our children and look forward to holidays with our grandchildren and don’t have to sweat putting food on the table any longer.  What next?  Is this all there is?

I think it is time to retire the word retirement.  There is a tiredness in the word itself that frankly I do not feel in myself or in many of my colleagues.  Whatever I am these days, being tired is not at the top of the list. I’m eager and sometimes I’m a bit despairing, I’m angry and I’m frustrated, but tired does not name where I find myself at sixty five.  Maybe it’s because I’m basically healthy (type 2 diabetes is my worst affliction so far, knock on wood), I try to watch my diet, swim a few days a week, walk a lot, do some yoga daily.  Still, ‘retirement’ doesn’t speak to me.  Does it speak to you?

What speaks to me is refirement.  My best hunch is that the years that follow our daily tripping off to a job to put bread on the table are better named by refirement than retirement.  I’m looking to get fired up all over again.  Re-fired.  That’s what I want to do with my remaining years.  More fire.  More focused fire.  More passion, not less.  More compassion, not less.  Does this speak to your experience too?

At our age we have a greater variety of options than we did when we were young when it comes to becoming fired up and refired.  They may range from planting trees to helping out in soup kitchens; from working with young people to visiting the sick or those in prison; from joining Habitat for Humanity with a hammer in one’s hands to going back to school; from taking up gardening, painting or a musical instrument to involving ourselves in political organizing; from traveling to reading.

There’s no one way to become fired up.  But the key, I sense, is to tend to the fire itself.  Keeping it alive, reigniting it if it has waned, digging deep for the fuel and the flame; reaching down to find where it lurks.

I think it’s altogether natural that a lot of the fire in us is attracted to the younger generation who themselves possess a lot of fire.  Grandparents and grandchildren hold a special attraction to each other.  (Addiction to watching sports on television can be a distortion of this attraction.)  The fire of the elders mixing with the fire of the youth—now that’s a conflagration we would all look forward to see happen.  The young people I meet today are more eager than any generation I have run across (certainly more than my generation was) to mix their wisdom with that of elders.  The natural affinity between young and elders is re-emerging in our time.

For example, I recently met a thirty-one year old African American rapper and video maker who goes by the name “Professor Pitt.”  We are linking up to create an after-school “edutainment” program in downtown Oakland called YELLAWE (Youth and Elders Learning Laboratory for Ancestral Wisdom Education).  We are both fired up by the failure of the current educational establishment to reach the needs especially of inner city youth.  Pitt speaks with the stunning post-modern language of rap and video and he has done his inner work via martial arts. I bring to the table thirty years of teaching adults in an alternative pedagogical model that emphasizes the new cosmology, creativity and meditation.

Together we want to reach the young people especially those 50% of youngsters who are not graduating from high school because they are bored and are yearning for forms of education and learning that can motivate them, that is, that can light a fire of learning in them.  I think we will be very successful; and I’m sure we’ll have fun trying.

Pitt is taking what I call the “10 C’s of Education to balance out the 3 R’s” and is putting them into rap and video.  This is the language that the younger generation gets fired up about.

The content I can coach “Professor Pitt” on guarantees that the message spread through rap and hip hop can be positive even in the midst of the chaos and negativity of our times.  (The “ten C’s include cosmology, contemplation, creativity, chaos, compassion, courage, critical consciousness, community, ceremony (celebration and ritual) and character and chakra development.)  Once we arouse creativity and get the message of awe and amazement that derives from the new cosmology going among the young they ought to be able to pass it on to others.  Learning is that way: If, like a good meal, it is offered in delicious form, it will catch on swiftly.  There is a natural appetite for it.

I of course will be undergoing a lot of learning in this mutual process. The younger generation today, being the first “post-modern” generation, has a lot to teach us older folk that includes but is not restricted to how to use the cyber technological inventions so easy for them and so…challenging for us.

But I must confess that I am fired up about this.  About taking the pedagogy that I developed with adults whom I taught at the master’s and doctoral level to a new level, to the streets and to the young as a precursor to an educational revolution.  The Dali Lama says that education “is in crisis the world over.”  What an opportunity! To work with young people to light new fire into education, a fire that might have worldwide implications.  Elders are invited to join us, not only to experience what all the excitement is about, but to work with the youth.

I am reminded of what Yeats said: “Education is not about filling a pail but about lighting a fire.”  And what Rabbi Abraham Heschel meant when he insisted that  “learning is not for life, learning is life.” Learning, whether it be mine at sixty-five or Pitt’s at thirty-one or our after-school students at fifteen, is not for life.  It is life.  It is our living.  Our being alive.  Our being on fire.

You can sense why I prefer refirement to retirement.  It’s a lot more fun.  And hopefully, more useful.

The Spanish poet John of the Cross attempted to reform society and religion in the sixteenth century.  For his efforts, his brother Carmelites imprisoned and tortured him mercilessly.  He effected a daring escape from their prison in the middle of the night and later he reported in a poem what drove him on, even though he “had no guide, it was the fire, the fire inside.”

We all live in our own prisons.  Our whole species has painted itself into prisons of poverty in the midst of luxury, of ecological disaster and urban blight, of boredom and addiction, of youth despair and ineffective educational forms, of couchpotatoitis and excessive religious zeal.  Can we find the “fire inside” to make our escapes?  Is this part of what being an elder means in our time—to tap into the fire in order to make some escapes?  Maybe we sixties folk ought to lead the way.

Refirement, indeed!

[I see this as a blocked out area:]  Some examples of places to look for refirement, the fire inside and actions that follow::

1.     What is getting you angry and stirring you up? Is it education?  Ecology? Homelessness?  Low voter turnout? Organize or join others in the struggle.

2.     What do you most cherish in life (not counting your grandchildren—that is a given)?  How can you get another generation excited about that and involved?

3.     What fire do you sense in the young people you know?  How can you join forces and contribute to their passion and concern?

4.     What books do you read or speakers do you listen to who stir some fire inside you?  How can you share that fire with others?

5.     Some fire is cool (blue) and some fire is hot (orange, red).  What are the cool fires burning in you?  How can you stoke them to a fuller heat and involve others in your interest?

6.     Creativity is a fire.  How are you being creative?  What art forms are you expressing yourself through these days?

7.     What are your talents and what is your experience in life that might be

valuable to others, especially the young?  How can you take this to them and

join them in their journey of self discovery and community building?

8.     In what ways are you an elder and not just a ‘retired person’?

9.     Have you found a young person (or persons) to mentor lately?  Go for it!

10. Should the AARP change its name to the American Association of Refired People?


The author is an educator and theologian who has written 28 books of which the latest are Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet and The A.W.E. Project: An Educational Manifesto where he lays out the theory and plans for the YELLAWE project (Youth and Elders’ Learning Laboratory for Ancestral Wisdom Education) he is launching with youth and elders working together to reinvent education in downtown Oakland, California..