Inspired by the idea of contributing to the MWW blog but at a loss for a theme, I consulted a friend who suggested PIP – Previously Important Person. The idea was that, as a physician, I must have suffered a loss of esteem as a consequence of retiring. My first reaction to this idea was negative because a change in level of importance did not seem to be an issue for me. Also, I thought, importance is often self-assigned. Surely I had never done that. A week later I learned that only two people had enrolled in my course at the OLLI College for Seniors and that the course was cancelled. The course was a vehicle for me to share what I had learned during my career, a final shot at being important. I decided to reconsider writing about importance.
Looking back, being important was important to me. I am an endocrinologist, a specialist in glandular disorders, and limited my practice to treatment of diabetes. My early career was in basic research, a clear path to importance. I had some success and attained tenure at the University of Virginia before I got fed up with the rat race and left academia. In 1991, I opened a solo private practice with my wife, Linda, as practice manager. Linda and I had never considered the possibility of working together, but someone had to attend to the practical aspects of making a medical practice work. She had the skills and experience that I lacked. We spent the next several years building an organization that was very successful and met our needs. We became very important people in a very small world that we created for ourselves. The time and focus required to make this work, however, meant that there was very little else in our lives. After sixteen years, we were ready to put this phase of life behind us and try something new.
In 2007, we retired and spent five years figuring out what we wanted to do, selecting a place to live, building a house, and moving to a new, strange place. Thus, by the time I got to Asheville, I had already survived much of the transition to retirement, or so I thought. Within a few weeks of moving here I attended a newcomers event at the Reuter Center. I remember walking past all the special interest group tables. There was one table labeled Men’s Wisdom Works with a youngish appearing man sitting behind it. I carefully avoided making eye contact and moved on. Suddenly, I felt an elbow in my ribs and heard Linda say, “You need that.” I momentarily lost concentration and it happened. I made eye contact with MWW founder Chuck Fink. I was a goner. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in a classroom at the Reuter Center with ten or so male strangers reciting a slightly fictionalized autobiography. I figured I would stick it out for a while to keep Linda off my back, and then drift away. That was over a year ago. Since then I don’t think I have missed any of our bimonthly meetings or occasional breakfasts. Our MWW group has become an important part of my life.
As I think about MWW, lots of ideas rattle around in my head. Despite lasting forty-eight years, my marriage seems to require more or less constant work. Our sons are long since grown but still give us worries. I am still looking for meaning in life and trying to figure out what “meaning” means. After many hours of discussion, several body parts still ache and the end of life still looms. I spend time examining my beliefs but get stuck on my belief that all beliefs are untrue. The list goes on and on. MWW doesn’t seem to be about making life’s problems go away. On the other hand, chatting with other men helps in coping with problems as well as taking advantage of opportunities. Women apparently do this spontaneously, men not so much.
I guess I don’t know why I am hooked on MWW. But then I don’t know why I am hooked on lots of things I enjoy. I do know that there are specific things about MWW that I like a lot. The men in our group are unpretentious. As in any group of males, there was some huff-puffery and spreading of tail feathers at the first couple of meetings, but that died out almost immediately. I am the only physician in our group. A hint of distrust of doctors and resentment over all the medicines and procedures we prescribe balances any esteem of my profession. My status in the group, therefore, seems to be neutral, as is that of all members of the group. Our discussions are mostly about the present and future rather than a lot of bragging about what we did in the past. I also like the fact that the men are unselected. The only thing we have in common is some connection to OLLI. The lack of rules appeals to me. The founder assembled our group, gave us some suggestions based on what worked well for earlier groups, and turned us loose. We decide where and when to meet and what to talk about. Nearly all of our original twelve have stuck it out, and we have spent a year creating a group that works for us. We have all stumbled from time to time, but the determination to make it work is palpable.
So here I am at age 73 and seven years post retirement. After some reflection, I have decided that successfully completing a transition to retirement is not the right goal. Doing so would mean moving from one rut to another. What comes to mind is that I could have opted to spend my days driving around a gated community in a golf cart reminiscing with PLM’s – People Like Me. I prefer to think of retirement as a time of continual change, an ongoing transition, an opportunity to sample widely from what life has to offer. I get to try lots of things that I always wanted to do and, even better, try some things that I didn’t know I wanted to do, MWW for example. If one thing doesn’t work out, like the course I was planning to teach, I can move on to something else. I may not be able to articulate exactly why, but MWW is important to my new outlook on life. MWW is a few hours a month set aside to spend time with a group of men who have no other agenda than to help ourselves get more out of life. I leave the meetings charged up and ready for more. Being important is no longer important, but then it probably never was.