May 22, 2012

Retirement & Guilt: Do You feel Any? Should You?

A comment left on an earlier post prompted me to do some serious thinking about the issue discussed by the reader. Steve wondered how much a part guilt plays in one's satisfying retirement. Frankly, I have never thought about it in those terms. 

Yes, the way our most disadvantaged citizens are treated bothers me tremendously. It is hard to fathom some of the "bumper sticker" hate talk I hear about folks who are homeless or forced to fight to survive on not enough food and minimal health care. The approach of some in government to make up the deficit by cutting the bare necessities even further for these people because they have no political "value" doesn't line up at all with my religious beliefs. When children are involved I feel ill.


But, as the reader noted, for most of us, that is not our situation. We have some type of roof over our heads, enough food and medical care to be as healthy as our bodies allow us. We have heat in the winter and cooling in the summer. There is likely at least one car in the garage unless we have chosen to to without. When we compare our lifestyle with so many others we are blessed. Does that ever raise a feeling of guilt? In part, here is his comment:


"Feelings of guilt at being able to retire when so many others are likely to have no opportunity. We are able to retire due to thoughtful (or lucky?) strategies of investment and/or frugal lifestyle. Or due to the good fortune of being born into an advantaged/educated household. Still, when I see so many hardworking people - and there ARE many hardworking poor people - who have no real hopes of retiring, I have to accept that the world is indeed not fair. Still, it rankles me that working hard does not guarantee some kind of retirement opportunity (Social Security alone, though helpful, is not enough).


When I was retiring from my teaching career, so many colleagues said that I certainly "deserved it". Some of being able to retire was due to hard work and strategic living, but much was also due to a small inheritance and the larger inheritance of good health and good education. There are lots of hardworking and less fortunate individuals who are also deserving.

- Also feelings of Guilt from no longer being "productive" in the typical 9 to 5 style. Not necessarily new, I know, but many of us don't feel useful unless we are on that blasted "hamster wheel" of the work world.


All sorts of these feelings of guilt can be turned into appreciation for whatever gifts we have earned or been arbitrarily given, but for me, it has taken some time and processing."


Steve raises some very important points to think about. The common definition of guilt implies that something wrong has been done, or a sin committed. It leaves one with a feeling of self-reproach for some ethical or legal failure. I'm pretty sure Steve isn't implying he "cheated" his way into retirement. 

His "guilt" is one of comparison: comparing his situation with other human beings who are in a much worse state through no fault of their own. In fact, he notes their situation may be in spite of doing things correctly. That prompts the question, "Why me? How can I live the way I live while others suffer without me feeling guilty?"

The feelings that Steve expressed are those of a man with a finely tuned sense of morality and fairness. What he sees is the condition of humanity: there are perceived "winners" and "losers " who may be in those categories through no action of their own. There will always be poor people and always be those who are well-off. But, what he is reacting to are folks who have been "mis-categorized" and can do nothing about it.

Before I get too heavy into philosophy and religion let me stop here and make one point: Steve's comment has brought to light a very important issue - that of fairness in society and what our responsibility is to recognize and react to it.

I must admit I don't feel guilty in the traditional sense about being able to retire early and live decently. I also don't believe I did anything better or different than many of my peers who are still working and might continue to do so for years. Yes, I worked hard, saved a lot and lived within my means. But, the talents and skills I was born with came from God. My educational and economic advantages came from parents. These factors were primarily responsible for who I became. 

I do feel guilty that there isn't more I can do to make things more fair. The best I can do is try to make the little parts of the world I touch a little less unhappy and depressing.

Has Steve's comment caused you to think about your retirement situation? Is feeling bad about what life has given you counter-productive? How do you react when others express jealousy over your situation? These questions can be important to our overall feeling of living a satisfying retirement. I'm interested in your contribution to this discussion.

38 comments:

  1. I've read that people who believe in karma don't suffer from this kind of guilt because they believe that we all have exactly the life we deserve, based on how we have conducted ourselves in past lives. An interesting perspective on the issue!

    I used to feel guilty about having more advantages than others, but I came to accept the blessings I've been given along with the responsibility to be a good steward of them. This means that I have tried to let go of the fear aspect of having a certain level of comfort in this world. When we are afraid, we grasp what we have and try to get more. When we are not afraid, we are able to respond more generously to the needs of others.

    That's an oversimplified response to a complex issue raised by Steve and you!

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    1. All of this reminds me of the end of the movie Schindler's List. Even though he saved 1,100 people Schindler was distraught that he hadn't done enough. If he had just gotten rid of a few more possessions he could have saved even more. That sense of guilt and failure no matter how much one does can destroy a person. We can only do so much. But, we must do something.

      Thanks, Galen.

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  2. Hi, Bob. Well, this is a mystery, for sure. I'm not yet retired but since I already have the means to do so I feel qualified to comment. I don't know if I feel guilt so much as wonder. My career took me around the world and I've been in places where there are children without shoes, where parents sell their older female children in the street in order to feed the younger siblings, and where life itself is so harsh and precarious that one holds their breath hoping that by the time they exhale they will be in a safer and more prosperous place. Perhaps the question is why were we born in the "rich world" whereas billions were not? I don't feel guilt about it but I wonder why.

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    1. That is a good way to look at the issue, Nik. As Steve noted in the original comment, if we are blessed we wonder why? Isn't it like the situation where a brother or sister dies and the remaining children wonder why they weren't taken instead?

      The Bible tells us we will always have the poor with us until the end of time. But, it also says we are responsible for caring and loving them. We can't change the circumstances of our birth. The best we can do, I guess, is assume we are lucky and do something positive with that luck of the draw.

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  3. I was blessed to be born in a first-world country. To have middle-class parents who paid for my college education. And two middle-class husbands (one at a time). And the ability to save money. And an inheritance from my mother. Good choices and good fortune.

    I don't feel guilty; to be honest, every now and then I feel a little self-righteous about it all, when I forget all the good fortune that had nothing to do with me.

    I do try to make a difference in the world, though. I feel the responsibility of being a good steward both of what I've earned and what I've been given. I've seen people abroad and in my own community who don't have enough to provide for their basic needs, or who struggle every day to do so. I know I've been blessed, and I'm grateful.

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    1. Like you, I know I've been blessed and I try to remember to be grateful. But, it is hard to not simply go on with our lives and "forget" the vast majority of our fellow humans are in dire straits compared to us.

      If Steve's comment does nothing else but raise awareness of this issue then he has performed a tremendous service.

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  4. Some people would flip that guilt around and say that, if you're in a position to retire comfortably, but still working, then you're robbing someone else of a needed source of income. Guilty if you stay, guilty if you go.

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  5. Interesting...I didn't think of it that way, but you are right: someone could make that argument. It is not a simple question, is it?

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  6. Bob, I think "survivor guilt" is normal for any retiree. Whether it's concern for those with less, or leaving co-workers behind to cope with an ever-greater workload, or wondering whether you've made a mistake in supporting your family... there's always some level of guilt. Perhaps it's especially strong among military veterans and others with a strong sense of service.

    Many of us won the genetic & geographic lottery. We can't all perform at Mother Theresa's level by working until we die and giving all our earnings to charity. It's not fair to our families or ourselves.

    Like you, I try to make my corner of the world a little better. I do it until I feel as if I've balanced "survivor guilt" with "enjoying the fruits of my labors".

    I also appreciate having the financial independence to be able to tackle an enjoyable project and donate its profits to charity. We're doing a good deed for others and supporting charities at the same time.

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    1. Nice overview and summary of the situation so many of us face. There is the potential for some guilt but also worry..worry that all the planning will be on target.

      The financial wherewithal to support charities that are meaningful to us is a very important part of a satisfying retirement. Defining our situation as winning the genetic and geographic lottery is a good way to describe it. It is a lottery that we had no influence over at our birth.

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  7. I have been working on gratitude instead of guilt. I am grateful for what I have been given. It is becoming increasingly important to me to not grow envious of those who have or do more- because I am grateful for having and doing what and where I am.
    I, too , know that much of what I have is due to the fortunate place I was born and the parents who raised me. I am grateful not guilty.

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    1. I am in your camp, Janette. Being grateful implies a humble awareness of what little part I played in the overall scheme of things. I learned financial discipline from my parents and social sensitivity from my faith. Yes, I had the will power to put all that in play, but maybe even that was a genetic blesssing..who knows?

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  8. Steve in Los AngelesTue May 22, 11:16:00 PM MST

    Bob,
    I also was blessed with a lot of "God-given" talents and with wonderful parents. I also had a lot of good luck. However, I worked very hard and sacrificed a lot to accomplish what I accomplished. Furthermore, much of my "good luck" was the result of preparatory hard work. For example, I experienced much good luck with the large profit I made from my previous residence, which I owned from June 1999 to July 2004. However, the "preparatory hard work" was my hard work while I was in school to study engineering which led to the high income I earned as a consequence of my hard work and success in school. My high income as an engineer led to my ability to purchase my previous residence in the first place.

    While many other people when I was in my 20's spent a lot of money to have fun and to party, I had a part-time job in addition to going to school AT LEAST half-time (and mostly went to school full-time) as an engineering major. During my post-collegiate years, when I was working full-time through February 2007 and at least part time much of the time since that time (through now), I worked very hard, saved my money, and invested my money very well. I also had and still have a high degree of motivation to have a "Satisfying Retirement".

    I do feel for other people who are not as fortunate as I am. However, I do not feel guilty, because I worked very hard and sacrificed a lot. I have a mindset that nobody can make me feel guilty. If anyone tried to make me feel guilty, they would NOT succeed in making me feel guilty. Instead, they would get a mouthful of words from me as I explain to them IN GREAT DETAIL why they or any other person or persons could not possibly make me feel guilty. I then would tell them to sacrifice and work hard so that they at least would have the possibility of having a "Satisfying Retirement".

    I would like to mention that I agree with Janette. I do have "gratitude". I also am grateful. However, I definitely am NOT guilty!!!!!

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    1. Guilt is an important emotion in certain situations. Without it, there would be a lot more evil and unhappiness in the world. But, as these comments are making clear, guilt is misplaced in this context.

      I really like the thoughtful responses from the BRITW(best readers in the world). This is turning into a very healthy discussion for us all.

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  9. I don't feel guilty about retiring where others can't. But sometimes when I see the lavish lifestyles that some lead I shutter to think that this occurs at the same time when so many are homeless and/or hungry. When I see someone spending a million buck for a car to add to his collection of hundreds I wonder if he is supporting anything outside of himself?

    One thing about retirement is that it gives us much more time to do other things. One of those things that I believe is a must is to spend some of that time helping those who are, as many here say, not as lucky as I. As a matter of fact I truly believe that the "work" I am doing now in that area is much more valuable to society than what I did in my non-retirement years. As the Bible says (and I paraphrase) "for whom much is given much is expected". Those of us who have enough to enjoy a satisfying retirement should do what we can for those who can't.

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    1. You have made an important contribution to this conversation, RJ. The actual work I did during my career really contributed little to society. Deciding what records to play on the radio, what DJ's should be hired and fired, and what prizes to give away during a contest may have contributed marginally to people's entertainment and enjoyment, but the lasting impact was minimal.

      The "work" I have done since retiring has far more potential to be impactful in a positive way. For that I am thankful.

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  10. Thank you, Bob, for presenting my thoughts to the larger world out there. Your commentary and that of your many followers were interesting and affirming.

    In light of all this - and with additional pondering on my own part, I now feel that the term "guilt" (as you noted) is more adequately replaced with the term "regret". Having spent 40 years of my life as a teacher trying to put children on a meaningful and effective life track, I see that there is no reason for -nor benefit in - agonizing over what isn't. Nevertheless, I do regret that there are many hardworking people who wish they could retire but feel that they can't. And I regret that there are many who indeed have retired but do not/cannot find the joy that retirement/redirection can provide.

    I guess it's a matter of living a concerned and involved life - with some regrets, but with no guilt.

    As always, gallons of thanks for who you are and all that you do.

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    1. I am so pleased you stopped by to see what happened with your original comment. I avoided using your full identifier in case what I had to say somehow misinterpreted your point and you ended up getting grief.

      Last night I wrote a note to myself (actually it was about 2 AM this morning) that in this case guilt may be better described as sensitivity. Regret also works if it is turned outward. That is, not regret from what you accomplished but feeling sad that others must miss out on much of what retirement can offer.

      Again, thanks Steve for your original comment that has generated this important dialog.

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  11. I did not retire. I was evicted from the workforce, then when I tried to find another job, no one would let me back in. So guilt? No way!

    I do feel bad, but not guilty, that others who were made "redundant" in their 50s do not have the resources I have to fall back on. I have those resources thru foresight, planning, the ability to postpone gratification, and yes, some dumb luck as well. But, hey, everyone should enjoy a little good luck.

    Which brings me to what I really feel bad about, and that's the poor kids of the underclass who, thru no fault of their own, have little or no chance to succeed in this country. So when I hear my contemporaries moan and groan about Social Security and their medical bills, I think -- we are the lucky ones. Let's redirect some of those resources to those who are malnourished, imprisoned in violent neighborhoods, and condemned to drop out of ineffectual schools.

    And now I'm beginning to feel a little guilty.

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    1. Your third paragraph ("Which brings me to...") captures the core of this discussion perfectly. If there is any guilt to be felt it should be as a society that permits some of its citizens to suffer unnecessarily.

      Before someone reminds us that some of the homeless and poor are there through wrong choices and laziness, these comments aren't about them. They are about those who are in those situations through no fault of their own. It is about the barriers erected to keep them from ever escaping that lifestyle. And the comments are about not begrudging those beneath us the basic support required to live. One of the dangers in living a privileged lifestyle is believing you deserve it and others don't.

      Thanks, Sightings. Your additions to this blog are always important ones.

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  12. I struggle with the same issue Nik raised as well. I do understand the lessons and gifts we receive when we go through periods of adversity and suffering, because I have walked through the fire of pain in my own life and subsequently experienced the tremendous gifts of comprehension, compassion and empathy it left me with, but I do not understand why there is such a broad range and degree of suffering. Why is someone born into relative prosperity and the choices it affords, while someone else is born into relative poverty and the very different choices, or lack of choices it affords?

    My husband and I are fascinated by the range of religious traditions, and have spent time studying quite a few of them over the years as a result. How to deal with poverty, pain, suffering is a universal issue that appears in every religious tradition, and how each religion seeks to address it is very interesting. I will confess that it has left me with more questions than answers over the years, but it has also driven this issue to the forefront of my mind, which is good, and very likely a reflection of an area in my life where I still need to grow.

    So, while I don't feel guilty at being able to retire early, I do feel increasingly charged to balance out the pleasures of our early retirement against directing energy and resources to assist others that are further back on the life satisfaction scale. Thank you for the gentle reminder to give back . . . I need to heed it before the gentle reminder becomes a brick in the head, as such is the way life seems to work.

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    1. With your husband just joining the ranks of the retired, now is a great time for you two to talk about the balance you refer to in your last paragraph.

      The religious quest and questions are part of being human, I guess. Whatever your beliefs it is probably true that there are no easy answers and there are more questions raised the deeper one probes. I use a simple guide: I am not God, and He is. I am not able to understand all this side of heaven, and he doesn't expect me to. But, he does expect me to use the talents and gifts given to me to make life better for others.

      That doesn't mean some of what is going on in the world doesn't drive me nuts and causes me to wonder why a loving God would permit it all. But, then I fall back on my original statement and do what I can.

      BTW, tell Mike he looked quite happy in his retirement hat.

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  13. I agree with Galen and Janette. Gratitude is part of my daily life and I know it makes a difference. I also believe in karma. Do no harm and none will come to you. Easier said than done, especially in corporate America.

    For me I see no retirement, per se. When I learned to honor the gifts God gave me it no longer felt like work, so no need to retire when you truly love what you do.
    Very thought provoking post Bob. Thanks.
    b

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    1. The word retirement really needs a replacement. I am retired from my radio career, but one look at my schedule and various commitments says that I am not retired, just spending my time and energies differently.

      Worry is a wasted emotion...it changes nothing. Gratitude is a powerful emotion...it can change everything.

      Thanks, Barb.

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  14. I have found all the perspectives quite thought provoking. We all need to step back and reassess where our mindset is. I,too, am so very grateful to be able to retire and do it at a younger age than most. However, I also agree that choices I made and sacrifices that I made helped to put me in that position. I won't say I "deserved" the good opportunities but am thankful that I was at the right spot at the right time and was willing to do the work to get there and stay there. And we chose to live within in our means so this would be possible now. A lot of people aren't making those choices. However, some have not "deserved" the bad luck that their careers have dealt them or had the opportunity put in front of them to be able to have what my family has. I do feel a responsibility to give back and try to build that into my daily life--be it large or small. But no guilt here. Just abundant gratitude for a life I am so enjoying. I also enjoy volunteering and helping others and am so grateful for the many opportunities that I have to now have the time to do so.
    But on a different note--which some may view as jaded--but I also hear a lot of others that say they will never be able to retire and lay on the guilt trip. Well, perhaps they won't because they live a very expensive lifestyle. We do not! And and we are very happy that way. So, if they can't afford that lifestyle, I am somewhat offended that they are seemingly jealous that we can make it work. And if they continue to be heavily in debt while still buying and buying...then they are probably correct...they will never be able to retire.

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    1. A regular commenter here related the story of her husband who worked for a major corporation for 35 years and was let go when the company went bankrupt. His pension was decimated while the top people floated away on golden parachutes. That kind of story is much too typical today. He was a victim through no fault of his own.

      Like you, I imagine the number of folks who say they will never be able to retire includes some who aren't willing to make the sacrifices to their current lifestyle to do so. For them, I don't lose much sleep. But, for the 75 year old man or woman who has to go back to work at minimum wage because of a 401K collapse or company failure I feel compassion and regret.

      Thanks for your insight.

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  15. I don't think we should feel guilty at all if our retirement is better than someone else. If a person has worked hard and has been blessed with a good retirement may God be with them. My husband and I did not plan as well as we thought and we are going to have to pinch penny's when he finally quits work completely but I don't feel bad that anyone else has a better retirement than me. I think it is great and I think they should enjoy it all they can. I also don't think fairness has anything to do with any of this. I kept thinking of Job who was mega rich, lost it all, and then God restored it all. Nothing was fair about that it just happened. That is how it is. We can have it all one minute and nothing the next, but God will always take care of us.

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    1. "We can have it one minute and nothing the next." That is exactly right, Sue. Material success and all the trappings have nothing to do with long term happiness....and certainly aren't going into the grave with you.

      A speaker at my men's meeting last night summed it up this way: "No one on his death bed complains that he didn't spend more time at the company meetings, or didn't play more golf. He is much more likely to wish he had spent more time with family and friends and the people he loves."

      Life isn't fair. Never has been and never will be. We can only play the cards we have been dealt to the best of our ability.

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  16. For me it's not a matter so much of guilt that I have more than others, but sadness, especially when the person's situation is not of their doing. Guilt is defined as 'the fact of having committed a breach of conduct' and 'the state of one who has committed an offense.' Because I didn't cause their situation, I do not feel guilty. However, I do have a sense of sadness for the people who do not have as much as I do.

    I have always felt a sense of gratitude for what I have and for the abilities and opportunities I have been given to earn what I have. I also feel a sense of responsibility to give back and give out, for lack of a better term, to those who are less fortunate than me. As I approach full retirement (for me, that means not working for pay), I see more time and opportunity to give back, with my time, my money, and my actions.

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    1. Feelings of sadness, gratitude, and responsibility....what a perfect summary, Cari. If we could all react that way, this would be a much more pleasant world.

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  17. Sue, I commented earlier but you have brought up that all things are gifts from God and can be given or taken away at a moment's notice--like Job. I so agree and also appreciate your perspective. Thank you so much. I am grateful but know I am not entitled--just extremely grateful. But I also know that I must be a good steward of what I have been blessed with and that includes giving back, helping, mentoring,and sharing what I can.

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    1. The concept of being a good steward is very important. I'm glad you used that term. We are only "borrowing" things during our time on earth, but are expected to make them work for the common good.

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  18. Bob, I am answering your reply about a 75-yr old man having to return to work at minimum wage after years and years at a corporation. I certainly was not implying that I think that is fair or just. Heavens no! I do not understand the injustice in things of that nature. And I am indeed grateful for all I have and wish that type of misfortune on no one. Certainly hope that I did not come across that way! That is so tragic and is happening more and more all the time. Also people that are aging are making choices as to buy food or medicine and can not afford both. That is just plain wrong. But I do get defensive with people that seem to have envy for my life while not willing to make choices with their abundance to put enough aside to do it at some point but continue to spend, borrow and lay on the guilt trip.

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    1. Sorry, Anon, I wasn't clearer. The stories were to help support the part of your comment that noted some have not deserved the back luck that their careers have dealt them. They were in fact two different individuals, but in each case they had suffered through no fault of their own, just as you noted.

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  19. Guilty - NO, Responsible for others - YES, to a degree (I could write volumes but this is your blog, not mine) , Blessed - ABSOLUTELY, beyond measure and grateful every day for the life that I have been given.

    I take nothing for granted and believe that open hands are as ready to receive as they are to give. Closed fists (and hearts) can receive nothing and give nothing.

    Sounds so simple.

    Bob, thanks for presenting a thought provoking issue.

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    1. Betty and I just finished watching the movie, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about the boy who lost his dad in the Twin Towers collapse. It was a powerful story about the need to forgive one's self for guilt both real and imagined, to accept what is, and feel blessed for the time and love we shared with someone.

      I just read your comment and was instantly reminded of the movie's message. Thanks, guys.

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  20. Do I feel guilty? Absolutely. Perhaps it's my age (45) and my lack of tenure in retirement (5 months) that makes me feel some uneasiness about retiring. From the outside looking in, I suppose I look quite privileged when in fact I think I am anything but. My retirement was not determined fully on the basis of a lifetime plan or dream to retire young, in fact, I would have loved to continue working in my career (which was fulfilling, but stress filled!) all the while amassing more money in my retirement accounts. I always worked hard, saved, and invested for that rainy day I grew up hearing about, and thankfully so, because it hit about six years ago, and goodness was it a downpour. After being diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease, I started giving my retirement plan even more attention. Five months ago I left the workforce with a pension, a healthy 401k, and medical insurance -- a hatrick! I feel guilty not for those who fail to plan, but for those who become ill at a younger than expected age. I'm certain the feelings of guilt will wane as time passes by. I am blessed, this I know!

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    1. Your story is a great addition to our discussion. Retiring at 45 because of a serious medical condition, but still prepared to face what may come is a life story with multiple lessons.

      Obviously you face a future filled with things most of us will never have to experience, but I sense from your comment you will tackle what you must with grace and fortitude.

      Thank you for opening up your story.

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