09/26/2012 12:10 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Retirement Thoughts: Intimations of Mortality

A news item about the new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi got me thinking about how I'm doing in retirement. Three months after his swearing-in, the most noticeable change to the presidential office was a plaque on his desk bearing the Koranic admonition, "Be conscious of a day on which you will return to God." This might, at first sight, seem deeply morbid but I found it amazingly refreshing. The Christian mystical tradition tells us to "keep death always before our eyes". I find - as I flounder a bit in so-called retirement - that thinking of each day as my last adds not so much an urgency as a sense of gratitude and expectation to life. I even look at the dog differently. Not so much as a separate species but as a companion in mortality! It wouldn't hurt if death flashed before our eyes (our own and that of those we meet every day). It could make us more kind and grateful. It was an ad for testosterone shots that set me off. A picture of this guy injecting himself every so often so that he can postpone intimations of mortality. I found the ad and story about men injecting themselves with testosterone depressing and not a little pathetic. I think that's why news of President Morsi's plaque came as a refreshing gift.

Accepting our mortality not only brings us closer together but also, if we listen to what it's telling us, it invites us to live life differently - with more gratitude and love - because none of us knows how many moments he or she has left for acts of kindness and of love. Huston Smith once asked an aging Aldous Huxley if he had any regrets. "I wish I had been more kind." Me too.

Forgiveness seems to be part of the deal too - including self forgiveness. Ernest Hemingway told a story about the popularity of the Spanish name Paco. A father went to Madrid and put an ad in the local paper: PACO MEET ME AT THE HOTEL MONTANA NOON WEDNESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA. The next day the had to bring in a group of la Guardia Civil to disperse the mob of 800 young men who gathered on the street in from of the hotel!

A friend of mine is a Viet Nam vet and that war came up in conversation because he had recently been in Santa Fe. The waiter at the restaurant where he and his wife were eating, was chatty and they discovered that they had both served in Viet Nam and had had parallel experiences. Once you got into the battle zone, uniforms were set aside and new rules applied. Survival was the name of the game. It was a terrible time in the war with the body bags piling up to be sent home. The waiter loved life and he said to my friend, "I just can't explain what this time in Viet Nam did to me. I told my girl friend, "Listen honey, if I wake up in the morning and I can wiggle my toes, I've won!" This is the deal. You wake up! You're alive! You win! Another day - unique and unrepeatable.

This has become a mantra for retirement - "another day, another gift" -- - not so much a winding down as a winding up (without the benefit of chemical enhancement) I wake up. I wiggle my toes. And amazement and gratitude take over. Not only that. I find a deeper engagement in life and its challenges it part of the package. "Keep death always before your eyes." "Be conscious of a day on which you will return to God."