March 16, 2016

A Knotted ball of twine


I am borrowing (with permission!) another great idea from the folks at Olderhood.com that has a strong visual impact: think of the problems or limitations in your life like a knotted ball of twine. The rope started out smooth with no kinks or twists in it. Over time, it has become tangled and unmanageable. Finally, you are left with so many knots that ball of twine is unusable.

Yet, you realize that if you take the time to gently unravel it, one problem at a time,  the twine can once again be clear of knots. No matter how many kinks existed, with time and patience you can remove them all.

Isn't that a powerful way to think of how we can approach our satisfying retirement journey? There are few obstacles or disappointments that cannot be unknotted or overcome. What was a useless ball of string is ready for something new.

Thomas Merton, a well known religious writer and activist once wrote, "We are a living incompleteness." I love that phrase. It captures the mysteries and possibilities of human life. What you are today, or were yesterday, is not who or what you might be tomorrow. 

With full time employment, maybe a growing family, building relationships, and finding one's place in the world, we are incomplete. We continue to grow and change. Attitudes and reactions to life at age 45 are not the ones we experienced at 25, or even 35. When we retire everything changes again. As we live, things become knotted and complicated even as we remain a work in progress.

Let me tell you story. There is a friend of mine who was respected in his industry and made a good living. He had a pretty, intelligent wife, and two well-behaved children. The kids never gave him any real worries, even during the teenage years, though he does admit always waiting up for one of them to come home after a late date.

His job required lots of travel and weekends spent at his home office. He went to church on Sundays when he was in town and tried to attend most of the school plays and sports. With a steadily increasing income, the family moved to a bigger house and vacationed in Hawaii or Florida on a regular basis. Some knots began to appear in his ball of twine from financial pressures and family responsibilities, but no serious tangles.

Life was good, or so he thought. But, as he talks with me about it now, he sees that it was a very incomplete life. He had no real hobbies or interests outside of work. Even when he was home his mind was elsewhere, always worried about business. On the surface his relationship with his wife was a good one. But, there was little real sharing or conversation that didn't center on the kids and their issues. When they were getting ready to leave the home for college, he worried that he and his wife would have little in common. The knots became bigger and more complex. But, there was no time to deal with them. Everything was moving too quickly. 

Then, the darndest thing happened: his business began to fail. With few other choices, my friend decided to take a leap of faith and retire. The IRA wasn't nearly ready. The savings was OK, but maybe not sufficient. The house still had a big mortgage and a monthly payment that was too much to bear. But, something prompted him to admit that his life was ready for a shakeup, that his marriage needed a serious re-focusing, that his lack of interests and passions was a problem he could solve, and that he wasn't defeated by these incompleteness. Slowly, he saw the knots in the ball of twine and started to untangle them.

Since then, my friend has never looked back. The freedom that came with a business failure came at absolutely the right time for him and his family. He has healed his important relationships, made peace with the mistakes he made in business, and found a few passions over the years. He has stopped looking backward; he prefers to focus on today and what may lie ahead.

I think he has embraced his incompleteness as a sign that his life remains vibrant and fulfilling. I am not sure he will ever settle for what today looks like. 

Oh, I am sure you figured it out: that "friend" is me. I would argue that at no time of my life is that concept of incompleteness more perfectly appropriate than during retirement. And, nothing is more important than unknotting the tangles that get in the way of a productive, happy, satisfying life.

Does your ball of twine have some knots that should be untangled?

14 comments:

  1. Your life story is proof that those knots in our twine and the bumps along the way often force us to make changes that ultimately benefit us. I really like the analogy of the knotted twine to life's challenges. It reminds me that focusing on one knot at a time usually yields better results than attacking too many. That big attack can end up with frayed ends (I've been there). Thanks for the encouragement, Bob.

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    1. Yes, untying one knot at a time is probably the best approach. I guess it is like trying to change a few bad habits. Attacking them all at once will probably fail, but one at a time makes the process seem doable.

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  2. Emphasis on the expression, "My friend has never looked back." That's the crucial part. We had lots of "knots" ourselves, but now our motto is, "You know you're on the right track when you become disinterested in looking back." Isn't it amazing how the self-discovery along this journey, the untangling of the knots, has given way to a lifestyle that is so much better than we could have imagined back then? There is so much more to do - we're just getting started. We'll probably create a few more snags in the twine...but I'm pretty sure we're mentally in a much better place to deal with them! Thanks for a great post!

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    1. I really like that quote, "You know you are on the right track when you are disinterested in looking back." Those are words to live by, whether one is retired or not.

      Thanks, Lynn.

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  3. I was always working too and had no time to spend with wife and kids.In 2005 we started travelling and cycling together all over Canada and the USA .Our life improved immensely and we MADE time.I am still sad that I did no do a better job with my wife and children.Now I am working hard to catch up with the things I did no do before.Now I try to spoil my bride and have fun with our children and grand children.I am so blessed,thanks to God .. And my bride.

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    1. It is never to late for us to get our priorities right, is it? Good job, Harry. I can certainly relate to it all.

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  4. Your life has played out like many of our own, Bob. Most of us likely have regrets, but since we don't really benefit by dwelling on them, best to move on. Live life to the best of your abilities, leave the Earth a better place than you found it, and set the stage as best you can with the next generation/kids. If we are able to accomplish those few things, it will be a life well spent.

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  5. My life was in knots, but I couldn't take the time to gently unravel it. My ball of twine was blown up with a stick of dynamite loaded with layoff, divorce, parents dying and kids leaving for college. I landed on my feet and ... I do look back, actually, but not with much regret. I was more than ready to leave my job, and have been able to muddle along financially. And the way I look at it, my ex-wife and I had a successful marriage that produced two wonderful kids -- and just because it ended after 29 years doesn't make it any less successful. We're still friends; we're both relatively close to our kids; and best of all, we're both still breathing!

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    1. You make an excellent point, Tom: the end of a marriage doesn't have to mean the time spent together was all wasted or a failure. Children and good memories are there forever. As a bonus remaining friends is good for everyone.

      Breathing is also important.

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  6. I have often admitted to friends that I never learned how to do anything right until I ran out of things to do wrong - often it is during the backing out of tangles that the greatest learning occurs! Thanks so much for your post and continued support of Olderhood - Robin

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    1. And, thank you for your support of this blog and my efforts by reprinting so many of my posts. I think I need to make a trip to Hamilton to buy you and Bill lunch!

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  7. Nice article Bob.
    The Ball of Twine can sometimes act and feel like the Rubik Cube. No matter how hard you try the tougher it becomes to get it sorted out, but the answer is in there somewhere. Patience, Perseverance and Positive Thinking will greatly assist the task.
    Olderhood - Bill

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    1. It is not as easy as it looks, is it. Thanks, Bill.

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