I was cruising the sunny Caribbean this week. The outdoor temperatures ranged from the low 70s to the low 80s. The mornings and evenings were perfect for outdoor dining. Even when the sun was most intense, one could retreat to a shady spot and be cooled by a sea breeze. This was my second Caribbean trip. The first occurred during the early months of 2012 when my wife and I flew from wintery London to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We were physically and mentally exhausted from our work and needed a break. The Caribbean seemed like the best place for a retreat.
My two Caribbean trips were both similar and different. Both were on cruise ships sailing around the Caribbean for a week during the winter. Both departed from the United States. The visits differed as we traveled on different cruise lines to different regions of the Caribbean. The biggest difference was that I worked during the first trip in 2012 and was retired this time. While this may seem a minor point, it wasn’t.
In 2012, we booked the cruise only a few weeks before we departed. 2011 was filled with heavy work demands punctuated with a parental death. Although Christmas and New Year’s Day were just weeks past, we needed a place to rest and recoup before slogging through 2012. Our first stop was a private beach. We quickly found two beach chairs and promptly fell asleep until we awoke sunburnt hours later.
Unfortunately, I still had to answer work emails and phone calls while trying to get some rest. My boss required me to phone each of my managers and inform them of their 2011 performance results on the day that all trading employees were told. He would not assist me nor allow me to postpone it a few days until I returned. The only possible place that had adequate internet and phone service was at an outdoor bar in the Dominican Republic where I sat sipping a beer at 10am so that I could use their internet.
Now that I am retired, I flew a few days ago to the Caribbean physically and mentally rested. I do whatever I like and respond to emails whenever I feel the urge. I don’t need to respond to a boss as now my supervisor is God who offers me grace when I don’t perform well. If my travels get disrupted, I don’t panic since I can easily rearrange my schedule since I have 365 vacation days a year. The differences between my 2012 and 2023 Caribbean vacations are vast.
During the past holiday season, I read Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY, 2021). He advocates envisioning life as limited time. Humans are mortal beings but manage their lives as if they are immortal. Our western culture exists in “a hypercompetitive economic climate, in which it feels as though you must constantly make the most judicious use of your time if you want to stay afloat. (It also reflects the manner in which most of us were raised: to prioritize future benefits over current enjoyments.) But ultimately it backfires. It wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for-benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives.” (pages 25–26)
I went to the Caribbean in early 2012 to prepare for another grueling year of work. I did not focus on the colorful sea life, sunsets, and gentle breezes. I just slept, ate, and did the minimum work required that allowed me to stay employed. My mind was still on the energy markets, projects, and work goals. My focus was to remain employed by exceeding my work goals until my early retirement in 2014. I was future focused.
Today, I went snorkeling for the third day in a row; each day, I snorkeled around different Caribbean islands. I dove into the water in search of colorful fish and coral. As I swam, I tried to relax and fully be in the moment. I did not hurry and cared little about time. While on the vessels that took me to the reefs, I admired the sea colors and island topography. I observed people, their dress, and foreign accents. Last night, I saw a full moon that peaked through white clouds above the pool deck as we watched fellow cruisers dance to Abba music. It was magical.
Most of my life, I tried to obtain a sense of control over my circumstances. Burkeman defines the term paradox of limitation: “The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets. But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead—and work with them, rather than against them—the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.” (page 32) He quotes Parkinson’s Law (C. Northcote Parkinson, 1909–1993): “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” (page 42) I certainly lived Parkinson’s Law in 2012.
The goal is that once you grasp the concept that there will always be too much to do, then “the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.” (page 44) I did not know of Parkinson’s Law or Burkeman in 2012, but I did know that I was unhappy with my consuming work life and needed a change. Eventually, the idea of attending seminary bubbled up within me and I applied months prior to retiring. I needed time to think, reflect, and be challenged in new ways, but without a defined goal except to write a book on work and faith. I was starting to face my finitude when I was in my mid-fifties.