February 28, 2011

Fresh Links...Retirement Planning & Successful Transition

To start off the week, and celebrate the availability of my first e-book on building your Satisfying Retirement, here are web sites and blogs on the topics of preparing for the transition to retirement and making the most of your opportunities. I've included links to articles about financial planning, health care, creativity, relationships, the growing importance of social media, and finding a hobby. I hope you find some information that is useful to you.

The Transition to Retirement
Almost a year old but still every bit as relevant, Kaye deals with the emotional side of retirement.

 
Retiring Soon? Make a Detailed Checklist
A checklist that starts 5 years before retirement and walk through each important decision as you get closer. There are 8 pages-be sure to click through all of them. Written by a financial person so be aware of a particular point of view. Still good info.

 
Deciding To Move Into a Retirement Community
An excellent overview of the decisions and questions involved in deciding to move into a continuing care community.

 
Determine Your Retirement Readiness
Another financial adviser with 10 solid questions to ask yourself before and during retirement.

 
67 is The New 55
This article looks at the economic effects of increased longevity on the world's economies and what it might mean to benefits and the "official" retirement age.

 Finding a hobby
Finding things to stay busy and involved is very important to a satisfying retirement. This article lists several ideas for hobbies and activities with excellent follow up links for each.

 
Tips for a Happy Retirement
Simple steps to make sure your retirement is satisfying and enjoyable.

Overcoming Retirement Challenges
A dozen challenges you may face during retirement, and common approaches to handle each one.

 
Social Networking Among Seniors
Facebook, Twitter, and the like are here to stay. Seniors are in the forefront of new users. Why? This article gives excellent insight into this phenomenon.

3 Big Financial Mistakes
There are actually more than 3 topics addressed. Worth the read.

Rekindling the Creative Spark as You Age
Stimulating article about finding that spark that ignites your passion and creativity. Both are crucial elements to a happy lifestyle in retirement.

Big Buck Needed for Health Costs After Retirement
Even with great insurance, a typical senior pays over $200,000 in health care costs after the age of 65. Scary. Open your eyes with this article.

Recession Proof Your Retirement Savings
One of my favorite bloggers, Retired Syd, wrote this for U.S.News.com. She includes a few links to other places that you might find helpful.

My Retirement Blog
A financial blog, I found the posts on the future of Social Security and when to switch financial advisor's worth the read.


Important news: "Building a Satisfying Retirement- How to Make the Most of This New Phase of Your Life" e-book is now available. Send an e-mail to satisfyingretirement with "Free Book" in the subject line for your copy. There is no cost or obligation.


note: comments are turned off with link posts.

February 24, 2011

Cultivate Resilience For a Satisfying Retirement

What is resilience? It is the ability to rebound or spring back from a problem or disappointment. It is an important emotional and physical characteristic. Without resilience a person can become discouraged by failures and simply give up. Even minor setbacks can become debilitating.

Having a satisfying retirement is really a case study in resilience. When your days of working full time come to an end, much of what you have known ends too. Your sense of self, your financial underpinnings, possibly your access to good health care, your social structure, your relationships with others, all will undergo changes.

Some people have serious  problems adapting to the differences. Others may stumble around a bit but eventually find their stride and move into this new phase of life with the enthusiasm and energy of a teenager. I am convinced attitude is one of the keys to retirement success. Resilience is one of the hallmarks of attitude. I'd like to share a few examples of resilience from my family. They occurred several years after retirement but are examples of bouncing back that can help us see what is possible.

My Dad spend a part of his career in engineering and sales unemployed and looking for a job. He was good at what he did but always seemed to be with a small company that either went out of business or was bought by someone else and downsized. I remember stacks of resumes on the dining room table, rolls of postage stamps, and a hopeful look when the mail came or the phone rang. I'm sure he was discouraged from time to time but it never showed. He was always cheerful. Our home life didn't change during these periods even though money must have been quite tight. Mom continued to teach and we simply ate more casseroles. Eventually, something would come his way and off he'd go to work with the same briefcase and the same happy attitude. His resilience wasn't recognized by me then, but I can see in now.

My Mom had several years of health challenges starting about 6 years ago. She gradually became less mobile. Her eyesight began to disappear 5 years ago, fading away completely about 18 months before her death. After breaking a leg and ankle she became confined to bed. Eventually heart failure ended her life in December. With all that she never lost her fascination with life, her interest in her sons, daughters-in-law, and grandkids. She refused to accept the limitations her health imposed on her until the last month when she requested hospice care. She refused to become negative and did everything she could to bounce back from every problem.

After her death Dad has shown another type of resilience that few in his family expected to see. After 63 years of marriage and virtually no time apart after each retired, Mom and Dad were inseparable. Often it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. For her memorial service, it was tough finding pictures with just Mom in the shot. Dad was always right next to her.

Much to our surprise, he has not withered and become depressed with the loss of his other half. Perhaps it is his personality to think positively and reject bad thoughts. Perhaps he had to put his entire life on hold for the last few years of Mom's life to care for her all day, everyday, and welcomes having some "me" time again.

Whatever the reason, he has adjusted beautifully. He is back singing in two different choirs. He has lunch with friends they both knew for years. He has a stack of a dozen books that he is working through. He is an avid Phoenix Suns fan and never misses a game on TV. Ask him about last night's effort and he becomes animated and excited in describing the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of the contest. He comes to family picnics. He has a regular schedule of washing his clothes and dishes. He keeps the house neat and organized. Does he miss his wife? Absolutely. Does he get lonely? I'm sure. Does he allow those feelings to dominate his life? No way. He is showing tremendous resilience.

Just like my Mom, he has has shown that he is not afraid to step over that line of fear we all draw sometime in our life. This may not have been how he figured his last years would be spent. But, he is showing a resilience that is an example for anyone. By the way, his 87th birthday is Friday. Happy birthday, Dad.


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February 21, 2011

How am I Supposed to Pay For This?

Where is the money going to come from for this? How can they raise my rates 17% every year? Don't they want any customers?

I'd bet you have asked yourself these questions in one form or another over the last several years...when the subject is health care costs. Besides being a never-ending political hot button, those of us living in the real world have to deal with a system that is either broken, or at the very least dysfunctional. Even if you are lucky enough to still have a strong policy through a job or pension, every year there is an increase in costs and a decrease in benefits or coverage.

Costs Are Insane

My wife and I have been in the individual health insurance market for 31 of our almost 35 years of marriage. Today, just paying the premiums on policies with very high deductibles and no drug coverage consumes 20% of our gross income each year. Even with me covered by Medicare in 3 more years, by the time my wife is old enough for coverage I expect we'll be forking over closer to 30%. A simple 2 or 3 day stay in a hospital costs more than $10,000. The average hospital stay in this country is 5 days and the cost is $24,000. Two years before she died my Mom broke her leg. The cost was $110,000. Note I said she broke her leg...she didn't have a heart transplant or anything fancy. Just a broken bone that we probably all have had at least once while growing up.

Those numbers make no rational sense. The entire system is based on the premise that those without insurance pay more than those with coverage. Hospitals agree to provide certain services and costs paid for by an insurance company at an extreme discount and then make their profit on hugely inflated charges that you have to pay.

We all have to take responsibility for keeping as much of our money out of the pockets of doctors, hospitals and insurance companies. Exercise, eating well, keeping stress low, and so on are steps every one of must and can take to prevent financial ruin from a preventable health issue. Joan's Boomer Blog recently had a good link to a list of  health sites for seniors. If you didn't see it click here as a good starting point.

Your Turn To Help Us All

My questions for you, though, are more basic. Since we are all in this together maybe we can learn from each other. Maybe you have discovered a way to get decent health care without filing for bankruptcy. Maybe you have a horror story about costs or health care problems you want to scream about from the rooftop. How exactly do you cover your health care costs?

One favor: please avoid blaming a political party, president, or policy. While there is plenty of blame to go around and this problem has been festering for years, that is not my goal with this post. I hope we can help each other by comparing our situations.

Look at each of these scenarios. Which one describes you? Please answer one or more of the questions under that heading. You can leave your comment anonymously if you'd like. But, I really hope we can get a dialog going about this issue and share strategies.

If you are covered by Medicare:
  • Do you have supplemental coverage?
  • Do you purchase Part D?
  • Do you use an Advantage policy instead?
  • Are you worried about restrictions on what is covered?

If you are in the individual market (insurance not provided by work or government):
  • How rapidly are your premiums increasing each year?
  • What benefits or costs have increased while the policy gets more expensive?
  • Are you afraid your insurance company will stop covering individuals?

If you are covered through work or a pension:
  • Has coverage changed since you left work?
  • Have your costs gone up?
  • Are you worried your company may eliminate health coverage?

If you have no insurance (like 45 million of us):
  • Are you skipping medical tests, procedures, and pills due to cost?
  • What would you do if hit with a major medical expense?
  • Do you use the emergency room for treatment of non-emergencies?

I really am looking forward to lots of comments and lots of feedback. Be as open as you are comfortable being in explaining your situation and answering these questions. I can't think of a subject that affects a satisfying retirement any more than this.

.

February 17, 2011

Eat Your Vegetables

Some blogs, web sites, newspapers and magazines love to hand out rather simplistic advice, delivered in bite-site portions: The top 7 ways to prepare for retirement, 10 ways to live a healthier life, 8 steps to declutter your home.  I call this "eat your vegetables" advice. It is common knowledge, it is obvious, and it is virtually useless. Not because top 10 lists are inherently bad or flawed. But, because most of these approaches assume that a "one-size-fits-all  actually works. I suggest it doesn't.

There is nothing more unique than your life. A list of possible solutions to your problems or opportunities can't hurt. It might even remind you of something you have neglected for too long. But, there is no way anyone telling you the best 10 ways to do anything can really solve your problems. Life issues aren't that easy to fix. They certainly won't be resolved by scanning a list.

So, what do you do? Clearly I am not about to list 7 steps you should take to solve your problems. Rather, I am suggesting you do some heavy lifting and develop your own approach to what needs attending to. It may be finding a new passion or something that interests you, fixing or strengthening a relationship, deciding how you are going to simplify your life, or figuring out how you are going to solve the financial bind you find yourself in.

Some of us do better with learning more about a subject before we move forward. Taking a community college course or two may be all you need to feel comfortable enough to better manage your money. The library has books, audio, and video resources on virtually every subject. The Internet has almost too much information to choose from.

Maybe your personality thrives in a mentoring type arrangement. You find a friend or the friend of a friend who knows what you need to know. Develop a relationship where you get what you need (information), and the other person gets what he needs (feeling needed).

I know people who find answers through solitude. Turning off the cell phone and computer, staying at home or finding a place to go for a day or more allows the brain to mull over the issue at hand. The freedom from distractions and everyday responsibilities can be tremendously energizing. Try it. You may find yourself with new ideas. Or, you may simply find yourself relaxed and refreshed with no specific solutions to a problem at that time. Both outcomes are positives.

You may be the type that needs hard physical work to allow your creative side to be released. By doing a manual task that requires little active thinking, your mind is free to explore solutions. As a side benefit you finish something on your to-do list.

What works best for me is is usually learning more about a subject or quiet time to think about what I have discovered. I tend to over-study a problem before moving forward...I'm working on that. Sometimes I will see an article in the paper or a phrase from a book that will grab my attention and give me an idea that I kick around for awhile. Then, I decide if it is worth pursing.


The point of all this is simple: a list that suggests it can help you have a happier, more fulfilling life by checking the items off like a grocery list is not going to work. Life's problems and needs can't be reduced to such an easy format. Put in the effort to discover the approach that works best for you and develop your own action list.

Oh, and eat your vegetables. They are good for you. That advice is true.


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February 14, 2011

Still Pushing Against the Box

I was never more proud of my family than shortly before Thanksgiving, 2009. I had just asked them to accept something that was highly unusual, certainly uncomfortable, and maybe even risky. When they had a full 5 seconds to think about it, the answer was a unanumous, "Yes." I had just asked my wife, daughters, grandkids, son-in-law, and parents to welcome a fellow who had been released from prison just two months earlier into our home for Thanksgiving dinner. He had no family and no one to share the day with. Nobody else in our family had met him except me. But, they welcomed him with open arms and made him feel like a part of our family from that day forward.


I relate this story as a way to continue the narrative begun a few posts ago. Pushing Back Against the Box generated as many comments as anything I have written. I sensed a real interest in what I had done and why. There were requests for more information on what the experience has been like. I am happy to oblidge. It would be great if someone decided to get involved with prison or jail ministry as a result. But, I will be satisfied if these two posts help convince you to try something out of your comfort zone. The potential for personal satisfaction and growth are limitless. If you also help make our world just a bit brighter in the process we all benefit.

I volunteer for Along Side Ministry of Arizona. Started by a man and his wife  12 years ago, ASM has grown into an amazing organization. It sponsors Bible studies and mentor relationships inside county and state jails and prisons. It owns multiple houses, apartments, and condos that house men and women upon release from state prisons. The most recent addition to their facilities was a home for women and their children. In most cases these families had been separated or estranged for years while mom was locked up. You can only imagine the emotions that are present when a mother and her kids meet again after years of separation. It will reduce the strongest person to tears.

What does a mentor do? My experiences with the two guys I have worked with is probably typical. Both the just-released prisoner and the mentor sign a contract that commits us to be together for at least six months. Along Side Ministry has such a tremendous track record of success that the participants are allowed a much more lienient involvement with the parole system. But, one serious mistake and the offender must move out of the ministry's housing and into a much stricter halfway house envirenoment.

Most men and women get out of prison with little or no money, no job, no transportation, and few social skills. I learned rather early in my work with these folks that the idea of "paying your debt to society" isn't reality. They face a society that expects them to fail and does what it can to fulfill that expectation. They face obstacles every way they turn. Apartments won't rent to them, employers won't hire them, and the state makes it difficult to get medical help. When an inmate is released from prison he is given $50 and a bus ticket. You can imagine how desperate you would feel in a similar situation.

Because of those attitudes and because the odds of slipping back into harmful behavior are high during the first few months on the outside, the convict and his mentor are expected to talk on the phone daily. There is a requirement of a face-to-face meeting weekly for the first four months. Budgets are developed together. The mentor drives his mentee to buy food and clothing, get to a doctor appointment, meet with the parole officer, and attend church services together. Though not part of the program, it is not unusal for the mentor to help with grocery and medical bills until some type of job can be found.

Two of the comments left after the original post are worth repeating and expanding upon. One reader said:

"I [find] myself making excuses even before I had finished your piece, I have no time, I already do this and that, to just name a few of the many thoughts that entered my head as I read. How do you become the person that does? It's so easy to be the person who tries or the person who will do... but to actually put yourself out there completely selflessly and blindly and just take that leap of faith Life is so much safer when you stay inside your box of safety... I can only imagine how rewarding it might be to actually step outside of that box."

The justifications expressed are the same ones I felt. In addition there was the fear of the entire prison culture and the stereotype of what all the inmates are like. But, the rewards of putting all of those negatives aside long enough to actually experience the realities, made the trepidation worth every worried moment and every antacid tablet I swallowed.

Another reader asked a bit about the process involved in going inside a prison. I had no idea what to expect. It was every bit as nerve-wracking as you might think:

You must apply to be added to the inmates approved visitor list.  Various police organizations look into your background , a process that takes about 30 days. The inmate cannot have had any infractions for an extended period of time before a visit. 

 I boarded a bus driven by an inmate after leaving my car in the parking lot and going behind the barbed wire fence. As a visitor you are not allowed to bring in a cell phone, your wallet, or wear any brown or orange-colored clothing. Your shoes and belt must be removed and all your pockets emptied to pass through a metal detector. You are permitted $20 in quarters in a clear plastic bag to buy food from the vending machines for the person you are there to see. There is a line on the floor about 3 feet from the vending machines that the inmate is not allowed to cross. Since the inmates receive only two meals on weekend days, the junk food that comes from those machines is very much appreciated. Only the visitor may approach the machine. You must keep your hands in clear sight the entire time you are in the visiting room.

It is important to note that the guards I encountered were polite, couteous, and respectful. When I had a question it was answered promptly and completely. After 20 minutes or so I relaxed enough to focus on the man across from me who was soaking up conversation and the appearance of someone from the outside like a sponge.

As I noted in the previous post, the point of these articles is to inspire you to push back against self-imposed limits. You are capable of doing amazing and important things. You have the ability to profoundly improve someone else's life. While retirement is a perfect time to push against the box of self-imposed limitations, if you are still working don't wait. The world needs what you have to offer and you could use the jolt of passion and joy that awaits you on the other side of that wall.


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February 10, 2011

One Decade Later: Has Retirement Changed Me?

One decade, 10 years, is a long time. Were you living where you live now ten years ago? Did you work for the same company? Did you have a major change in your relationships: marriage, birth, death, divorce? Are you now fully retired? Are you the same person?  Have things gotten better, or worse for you?

I have been without a job for a full decade. I wouldn't have chosen to retire in 2001 but circumstances made it clear to me that I needed to make a major life change. For me, the first few years afterward were a bit of a struggle. I puttered around the house, watched too much TV, read too much just to fill the time, and lacked a reason to bounce out of bed each morning. About five years ago I began to find a direction and a balance. I began to understand how retirement forced me to make adjustments, both major and minor, in how I thought and what I did.

Now, 10 years later, what adjustments to my thinking have occurred?  How is my life different from the first, stumbling steps into my retirement?  What has happened that I didn't expect or plan for? Here are a few answers from a post I originally wrote 6 months ago, updated with my current thinking. 


Financially Much More Relaxed. There were several ups and downs in the economy and my investments, even before the Great Recession of the past few years. At first I was constantly worried that I had miscalculated or forgotten some major expense. At least once a week I'd use a retirement calculator to re-check my financial plans. Each time, the numbers confirmed we should be OK. I did not expect health insurance costs to go up so rapidly, year after year. I actually forgot about having to buy new cars. But, overall, the financial plans my wife and I made have held up. Today, I am much less likely to stress over every up and down. We'll be OK.

Part of the reason is we have scaled back our expectations. Right after retirement we thought our life would be filled with cruises, month-long vacations in some exotic locale, and motoring around America in a 26 foot RV. Not much of that has happened. Now we know what makes us happiest is found much closer to home in family, friends, and our simplified lifestyle. That realization took substantial pressure off our investments to fund a more lavish lifestyle. 


Much More Aware of The Passage of Time. When you first retire, the time horizon does seem rather far away. That is an illusion caused by the sudden end to daily job responsibilities. Days of the week suddenly become much less meaningful. Monday is every bit as good at Saturday. There is no rush. About five years into this journey, however, there was a shift. I became more aware of the passage of time. I understood that each day seems long, but goes by quickly and will never be repeated. Anything not done today will never get done today. By leaving it until tomorrow that will push something else into the next day. Time isn't as elastic as it seemed at first.

Both Betty and I have found activities and passions that excite us. While our to-do lists are much too long, we are getting better at setting priorities. The things that are important to us get more of our attention and time. While we don't get to everything each day, usually we feel the irreplaceable time that day has been spent well.

 
More Open to New Ideas. The first few years are spent finding your rhythm and becoming comfortable with the decisions you have made. There are a lot of adjustments as you move through the stages of retirement. I did not have the inclination to take on additional challenges in my life. But, then I felt the need to begin to grow and to take on new projects. I was comfortable in thinking about how my life was being lived in new ways. I have shed some old convictions and approaches. In this 10th year I feel like a kid in a candy store. My brain is full of new things I want to try. I am moving full speed ahead to create a satisfying retirement lifestyle.

The post of a week ago is a good example of being open to new things. Working with inmates in area prisons as well as those just released has been extremely gratifying. I would never have guessed that would be an important part of my life.


Much Less Interested in What is Going On in My Old Industry. I spent 35 years in my field. I knew a lot of people. I had a lot of former clients that I wished the best for. I was interested in staying in the loop. About five years ago, I began to lose interest. I no longer felt I had to check on the latest developments or stay in touch with people I knew who were still working. In this 10th year I have no interest whatsoever. That was a former life. It was a good one and allowed me to live this one. But, I've moved on. What is going on in the broadcasting industry is no longer relevant to me.

Learning to shed that old skin for a new one is all part of the growth process that is so much a part of retirement. What was important then just isn't now. I don't regret any of what I did, but I am not interested in having any of it as part of who I am now.

There are actually several audio clips floating around the Internet of some of my radio shows from over 40 years ago. Every so often I will listen to my 20 year old self and remember what it was like. There are great memories of people and places and experiences. It is somewhat surreal to hear myself so young and know those tapes of me will probably exist well after I do. But, after a quick trip to my youth, I click off the Internet and have no feeling I want any of that back.


Much Better at Saying "No." When someone first retires there is often a rush of requests for that person's time. Volunteering for this or that, heading a committee, helping with the Boy Scout meeting..... the lack of a full time job must mean you are constantly available to help others. But, as the years pass by the ability to filter out the things you don't want to do becomes greater. The ability to say "No" to everything comes more easily. You find the strength to say "Yes" to the things that are meaningful to you and most helpful to others.

Surprisingly, this adjustment has been as difficult as any. Saying "no" is not part of our nature. We all want to be needed, liked, appreciated, and desired. The more things you are asked to help with the more you are validated. To turn someone down is to risk being seen as standoffish or aloof or selfish.

But, just as an awareness of the passage of time grows as you age, so does the understanding of protecting yourself. Spread too thin, saying "yes" too many times, and you will drown in all that validation. By becoming more selective you will do a better job at whatever you do agree to do, and be happier in the process.

I have absolutely no idea if I'll still be blogging in another decade. But, if so I would guess the changes from now until then will be every bit as life- changing.



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February 7, 2011

You Owe it To the Person You Love

Is your relationship one-sided? Don't get defensive, most are. I don't mean that one of you is always taking and the other always giving. I mean in a way that proves how much you love the other person. You prepare him or her for handling a crucial part of modern life if you are unable to do so: the couple's finances.

It is common in a marriage or a serious relationship between two people that one of them handles all, or certainly a significant part of the financial side of things. Bill paying, taking care of tax returns, handling interactions with investment people, and managing bank accounts are the primary responsibility of one partner. Usually, there is agreement that one person is better suited to handle those duties. He or she probably enjoys it and has developed a system to ensure that what needs to be done is taken care of.

That is fine until a health problem or an untimely death leaves the survivor  suddenly facing a desperate form of on-the-job-training with the potential of a financial crisis. Of course, another option is to find a relative or outside person or business to take over this role. This can be quite expensive. Even worse, the person overseeing the matter may be untrained or even unscrupulous. Very quickly a lifetime of careful planning and investments can disappear.

It is much better for the "financial person" in the relationship to teach the "non-financial person" what must be done before disaster strikes. Taking the time to prepare another is an act of love. Frankly, I believe it is also an obligation, a part of what must be done in a committed relationship.

What are the basics that both partners must know? Here is a list from my own experience. As the financial person in our marriage I am committed to be sure Betty knows enough to avoid any financial pitfalls while she is looking at all her options if I am unable to be there.


Not us !
Banks:
  • Where do we have accounts? 
  • How does she get up-to-date statements?
  • Where is the safety deposit box key?
  • What are the PIN codes for the various ATM cards?
  • Are there minimum deposit levels to maintain to avoid fees?

Credit Cards:
  • What cards to we have?
  • What are their limits and when are payments due?
  • Where does she go on-line to check charges?
  • What should she do if she sees a fraudulent charge?
  • Where are card numbers stored in case a card is lost or stolen?

Bill Paying:  
  • She must know which bank accounts are used to pay which bills,
  • What to do when receiving an e-bills
  • How to set up automatic bill pay
  • How to change payment dates and amounts when needed.
  • Where on-line passwords are stored and how to change them occasionally.
  • Where extra checks are stored 
  • How to see which checks and payments have cleared.

Insurance:
  • Life insurance is held by whom? How much?
  • Car and home owners policies? Who is the agent?
  • Health Insurance information and policies, customer service numbers, limitations or restrictions, keeping premiums current?
Investments:
  • Name, address, and phone number of adviser.
  • How to look at statements on-line for investments and IRA accounts.
  • How to get cash from investments transfered to other accounts to pay bills and provide living expenses.

Taxes: (Welcome to the Jungle!)

This is an area where I do advise her to have a professional handle the state and federal returns. I enjoy doing them (odd, I know) and can make Turbo Tax do what I want. But, there is no reason she needs to be able to take over this area. However, there are things that should be understood: a basic handle on what expenses are deductible, what paperwork to maintain for the tax preparer, and the deadlines for things like quarterly taxes and returns.


This is our list of things we both feel each of us should understand if the need arises. I'd be interested in two things: have you done something like this for your spouse or the person who may have to take over? And, what have I overlooked? Since I still have most of my faculties there is time for me to take care of anything I may have missed.


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February 3, 2011

Pushing Back Against the Box

For the last three years I have done something I never imagined I would do. I became involved in an activity so alien to my background and comfort level that it can be described as pushing back against the box I was in at the time. When I began I had serious doubts about my ability to carry out the task with even a modicum of success. A year into the process my involvement took a major step forward in a way that dramatically increased the risk of failure and a risk of physical danger.

Three years ago I became involved with prison ministry. I began to act as a mentor, a spiritual guide and sounding board to men who were either still in prison, or were just about to be released. Trust me, up until that point I had zero involvement with this segment of society. Like most of us, my attitude toward prisoners was they probably got what they deserved. They were paying the cost for bad choices or being unlucky enough to be born in a poor environment. They were invisible as people; they were a stereotype.

The first exposure came when my church asked me to write to a fellow who was in state prison. He had been in jail for most of his life. He had no family support and had no visitors for over two years. With two more years to go on his latest sentence I began to write to him. The first few letters were very difficult. I had absolutely no idea what to say or not say. What questions should I ask? What should I not ask? Would he even bother to write back?

He did respond and was overjoyed to have anyone to communicate with. Even when I made it clear his situation was impossible for me to truly relate to, he didn't care. He just needed someone to give him hope and a little bit of attention. We continued to exchange letters for over a year until he felt comfortable enough in the relationship to ask me to visit him inside the prison.

OK, this wasn't something I had bargained for. I've seen enough prison movies to know that bad things happen behind the barbed wire. I figured there would be a paperwork screw up and I'd not be allowed to leave. Writing to someone was one thing, but actually going into a prison to meet someone I only knew through letters? I began to generate every reason why I couldn't do this.

I went. I thought of how I'd feel if I had been locked up and had no one come to see me in nearly three years. I figured people visit inmates all the time so I'd be fine. But, when the bus taking me into the prison yard rolled past the two gates, the barbed wire, the guard towers, and the patrolling dogs, I got very nervous.

It worked out just fine. Actually, the fellow I went to see was so nervous before seeing me he hadn't eaten in two days. He was worried I wouldn't show up and he'd be ridiculed by his cellmates. He worried his only chance to talk with someone who wasn't dressed in orange would not happen. I think he talked virtually nonstop for the 90 minute visit. I went back once more to see him. He was released from prison in late January and as of today is doing fine.

The reaction of that guy to the simplest human contact of letter writing lead me to another commitment two years ago: being a mentor and friend to a convict for a period of six months starting on the day he is released from prison. This program involves substantially more time and effort than simply letter writing. As someone's mentor I am expected to talk with him on the phone at least 4 times a week and visit him at the halfway house a minimum of once a week for the first four months. I am expected to help him develop a budget, stay away from old friends and habits, help him get a job, buy him clothes, drive him to medical appointments, and meet with his parole officer on a regular basis. I attend church services with him and I help him in his faith walk. I am the person he calls when he worries he's about to make a mistake.

This experience has been absolutely fabulous. Both fellows I have mentored have successfully completed the six month program. Both have become employed and positive members of society. Both have overcome society's attitude that once a convict, always a convict. The barriers we erect to keep these guys from succeeding are enormous. To their credit, they have taken all the obstacles put in their way and simply overcome them. 

Why this long story about prison ministry? Do I want to convince you to become involved? That would be a tremendous side benefit and I'd be happy to talk with you in depth about the whole experience. But, really, the point is to give you a very personal example of pushing back against the box, the box that limits what you think yourself capable of.

Volunteering your time and skills helps you face some of your fears. It can push you to grow. Are you uncomfortable around children or homeless people? How do you feel about domestic violence? Do you avoid people who are dying? Do you believe all convicts are not to be trusted and are destined to end up back behind bars?

Are you willing to confront those perceptions by becoming involved with the very people you fear or are uncomfortable being with? Are you prepared to learn something new about yourself and the world we live in?

All I ask is you think about your self-constructed box and how it might limit you. Thinking outside the box is a cliché, but it doesn't make the statement any less powerful. There is a whole world waiting for you outside your box. What better time to discover it than today.


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