THE BLOG

Staying at It, Letting Go

06/18/2015 09:56 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

My father and I were of different stripes. He, for instance, would have pleased an investment adviser friend of mine who bemoans the fact that "no one saves these days." My father saved something, even a small amount, starting when he was poor, and he regularly urged me to do the same. It was good advice, mostly ignored.

I will soon be the age my father was when he died, and by now it is a quarter century since I left full-time teaching. At this age he had no mind for retiring, instead kept battling poor health and endeavoring to sell the life insurance he'd been selling for half a century. Maybe it's as well that he had passed away when I left teaching before age 60; that's something he would have found hard to understand.

In full-time work I let go early while he stayed at it his whole life.

Still, we were both creatures of habit, and in other areas we did wear the same stripes. My father came as a young immigrant to this country, settled in Texas, had little formal education, and resolved to be his own boss. His insistence on continuing to work was simply keeping a habit of decades, going downtown to his office when it wasn't clear that he any longer knew the way there or back. That which I found questionable was what my mother said was important for him to continue.

I had my own ingrained habit that I insisted on holding on to. Thanks to a modest pension, I left teaching at 56, but I've perpetuated that work as a substitute teacher and volunteer in high schools. Though getting around has become more difficult, I've continued to work with students as a private tutor. In the school year just ended three students met me at home.

My father often advanced his clients' premiums when they were unable to do so. Aside from their insurance agent, he helped secure their families' futures.

My students and I worked quietly at home, one on one. Aside from helping them in one subject, I tried to instill in them self-confidence in their futures.

What about people who insist on staying at it, maybe past the time when they should have quit? The teaching world, for which I have much respect, is all the same a place to look. I have known teachers who stayed in their jobs for three decades or more, past the initial joy of standing in front of a classroom, maybe past the time when the job should have gone to someone younger. It would take courage if they were to let go of the only career they've known, but I wonder if they wouldn't find fun in volunteering in some untried area.

There's comfort--and security--for sure in routine. And sometimes elation in letting go. The best thing I ever let go was years of smoking; the best thing I've held on to was attendance at a health club.

Staying at it or letting go isn't always a clear choice. But I'm sorry my father is no longer here for us to compare paths. Maybe we'd have acknowledged the good in the paths we chose, even different ones. He, for instance, was loyal to Texas; I let go of my beginnings and moved to New York. I'm glad not to have stayed in my job as he did, but I'd have been smart to take up saving, something he encouraged and practiced for a lifetime. A lesson I should have listened to way back.

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Stanley Ely writes about family and habits, good and bad, in his book, "Life Up Close," in paperback and ebook.