May 19, 2021

Reflections of a Retired Environmental Lawyer

Posted on May 19, 2021 by Chris Davis

On December 31, 2020, I retired after working more than 40 years in the environmental field—two as an engineer, 30 as a lawyer, and 10 as a climate change advocate. This was my third and hopefully final attempt at retiring from paid work. Now comes the interesting part.

Many of us from the first generation of environmental lawyers are contemplating retirement or have already taken that step—some voluntarily, and some involuntarily. I’m in the first category but have found “retirement” challenging. It is my nature to work, to be useful, to solve problems and to try to make a difference. But I also like to ski, cycle, hike, golf, travel, read, garden, listen to live music and spend quality time with my partner, children and grandchildren. So retirement presents some of the same work-life balance issues and choices as practicing law full time (albeit with more discretion as to how we spend our days). This is clearly a “first world” problem that most people wish they had to deal with, but I suspect I’m not the only member of the College pondering how best to spend the rest of our lives.

I feel very fortunate, and indeed blessed, to have had the choice to retire, in good health, with financial security, and the opportunity to do, or at least attempt, all of the above. But frankly I’m struggling to figure out how to allocate my days, and how much of my time and energy to devote to trying to save various parts of the planet, helping lead my church, serving on nonprofit boards, contributing to my community–and yet get off the treadmill of constant effort and activity, slow down, be meaningfully present with my partner and family, attempt to relax, open my mind and “enjoy retired life.” An internal voice keeps reminding me that “to whom much is given, much is required,” while family and friends urge me to ease up and chill out. Admittedly, I’m still new at this, so perhaps will figure out what I am now called to do as I get older and more tired.

In his excellent and thoughtful book, Falling Upward, Franciscan theologian and writer Richard Rohr explores the transition many of us aspire to make from the “First Half of Life”—which is defined largely by work, career, achievement, material acquisition, building your resume and achieving “success,” to the “Second Half of Life”—which is characterized by self-knowledge, reflection, serenity, deeper and more meaningful relationships, service to others, spiritual growth, and generally spending more time “being” than “doing.” Rohr describes the transition from one’s “false self” to one’s “true self” as we gain wisdom and begin to see more clearly what is truly important in life. Among other things, this involves giving up our titles and business cards, and moving our self-definition from “what do you do” to “who are you?”

The first half is necessary, but not sufficient, to a well-lived life. According to Rohr, the journey from the first half to the second is often rocky, circuitous, and involves loss, hard lessons and some “necessary suffering.” We learn most things that are worth knowing the hard way. My current struggle is dealing with an overpowering sense of responsibility and drive to solve environmental and social problems, at the expense of the rest of my life. Indeed, many “successful” people never make it to the second half and remain stuck in the first. So far, I may be one of them, but am working on the transition in my spare time.

I am clearly early in this journey called retirement and have much to learn about this largely uncharted part of life. I am finding it rich with opportunities, but also full of pitfalls like overcommitment and addiction to golf (or the fortunes of the Red Sox). As I leave the trailhead, I would welcome the company and advice of those of you who are farther along on the trail. Perhaps some of us can walk together, renew old friendships or build new ones, and learn from each other’s hard won experience.