“I’m really not in a hurry to go home to my wife,” said Jim. “We don’t really understand each other, so I spend most of my time now that I’m retired looking for reasons to get away from home during the day.”
I’d seen Jim before, but we’d never spoken until Tuesday afternoon. You know how older men like to congregate in certain community gathering spots, frequently for breakfast? There are some guys like that who sometimes hang out in the afternoons at a hamburger joint where I often go to write.
Jim normally hangs out with some other older guys who come into this place in the afternoon, but none of his buddies were around. He’s 74 years old, so he’s been retired for years now. I don’t remember how many he said it had been.
Jim is bored. He used to be a partner in a construction supply business that was absorbed by a larger company. He didn’t get rich when the company sold, but he said it was enough for him to retire in style and do whatever he wanted. The only problem is that he had spent his entire life doing things that weren’t especially meaningful — just to arrive at retirement and wonder what he had been doing for all these years.
He’s not sure how he ended up spending his life in the way that he did. He said when he was a teen-ager, he and his brother were both going to be Baptist preachers and they were both planning to serve God and make the world a better place. His brother got married and that couple became missionaries in South America. Jim said he had planned to go to seminary, but he had a business opportunity offered to him right as he was finishing college. It seemed like a great opportunity, so he thought he’d work on the business for a few years and then sell his share, leaving him with some security.
The effort to build a nest egg for security turned into something of a millstone around his neck. He got married and his wife was happy to have him building a business. But building it was slow. It was tedious. As the years went by, he had invested too much time not to keep working at it. Five years. Then a decade. After 15 years, things were far more profitable. He was making a good living. Just a few more years and he would have something to sell — and then he could do something that mattered.
“It seemed like we started on the company one day and then before I knew it, 40 years had passed,” Jim said. “I don’t know where the time went. I was always counting on doing some things that mattered, but the time never was there.”
Jim said he wasn’t as involved with church ministries as he wanted to be, because he always had business to attend to.
“I was a deacon at my church,” he said, “but I think it had more to do with them making sure I was on board for giving the money they knew I could give.”
The wife he thought he knew — who he had once thought might make a fine pastor’s wife in a few years — got quite happy and comfortable being someone with money. She mostly raised their children and spent time with her friends. They lived parallel lives, he said, not disliking each other, but not knowing one another. By this point, he says he doesn’t know her and she doesn’t know him. He’s not even sure when their priorities diverged so badly.
So he has his money, but he doesn’t have any real intimacy with anybody around him. The friendships he thought he had went away when the business was sold. He’s bored and left wondering what happened to his life.
“If I could do it again, I would do everything different,” he said. “I’d go to seminary and become a preacher. That’s what I felt called to do, but the business made so much sense. Everybody understood why I was doing it. At the end, though, all it did was give me a moderate-size pile of money and the feeling I didn’t do anything worth doing.”
What about Jim’s brother, the missionary?
“He and his wife are real happy,” Jim said. “They still live in South America, so I don’t see them that often. But they’ve worked together for all these years on work that they felt called to do. They feel like they’ve done things that mattered and helped a lot of people and done what God wanted them to do. They have a peace and fulfillment that I don’t have.”
Jim paused. I thought for a moment he might cry.
“I’d gladly trade the money I made and the life I’ve had for what they had,” he said. “They have love for each other and they know their lives mattered. I don’t have that. I wish I could do it all again and make different choices.”