As a practicing physician approaching retirement, I had some major decisions to make — what will I do for the rest of my life? With all professions or occupations that one has dedicated his or her life to, one’s identity somehow, right or wrong, becomes entwined with what he or she did. Therefore, retirement, though seemingly something we all look forward to, becomes a two-edged sword, or bittersweet as it were. As we enter the world of retirement, suddenly we begin to experience a sense of loss, the loss of a sense of achievement, being needed, essentially a loss of significance.

So, part of the preparation for retirement ought to be the planning for how to maintain that sense of significance, or in some cases, where perhaps a job was simply a means to an end of being a provider for one’s family, a plan to experience the excitement of making a difference. Often, the plan for retirement is simply to look for opportunities to enjoy doing things that there was simply not time to do while employed. Unfortunately, that venture usually lacks the ability to replace that loss of significance and consequently grows old, as one develops a sense of meaninglessness.

After retirement, I joined a group of other retired folks seeking what to do in the second half of their lives. In fact, our group is called Second Half, which is an offshoot of Needles Eye Ministry here in Richmond. We seek to understand and follow the Lord’s plan for the rest of our lives.

As a physician, in a serving profession, my planning was focused on looking for opportunities to serve. Of course, I also had the desire to balance that with opportunities for enjoying some of the things, such as travel, that I did not do while working. But I knew that I also wanted to continue a life of service.

For years, I had wanted to volunteer at a free clinic, but I did not have the time. Retirement allowed me the opportunity to continue to serve as a physician by volunteering at a local clinic, Crossover Ministry, which provides comprehensive health care to the uninsured.

Since I had served in the U.S. Navy prior to college and medical school, I always felt a debt of gratitude to the Navy for providing the opportunity to mature and take my education seriously. Of course, I also felt indebted to the Navy for paying for a major portion of my education. Therefore, when I discovered the Richmond Council of the Navy League of the United States, I decided to volunteer to serve by providing morale, welfare and recreational support to active-duty servicemen and women of the United States sea services.

I also discovered that I had several American Revolutionary War patriot ancestors, which allowed me to become a member of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). Membership in this organization offered the additional opportunity to volunteer to support our area high school JROTC programs by offering essay contests with potential scholarship awards on topics relative to aspects of the American Revolution, framing of the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. This organization’s mission is to educate our youth and the public about our patriotic heritage and the American ideals and heritage.

There are many opportunities to volunteer, and unfortunately, for some reason most of those volunteer opportunities are understaffed. Is it because people are not aware of them or because people are afraid that they might be losing their freedom? From my experience with volunteering, I can promise that there are several advantages: You can work as little or as much as you want to; you can always walk away if not satisfied; and the rewards are beyond your expectation. Oh, did I mention, there is lots of vacation guaranteed?

By the way, if you are already retired and feeling that lack of significance, it’s not too late to join the volunteer ranks — Uncle Sam wants you!

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John Harler, M.D., served in the Navy from 1965 to 1974 and is an active volunteer in the Richmond area. Contact him at:

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