I give a lot of credit to Pope Benedict XVI for stepping down from his position because he didn't think he could do his best for the Roman Catholic Church any more. His is an example that others in positions of power should follow.
Age sneaks up on all of us, and people generally don't want to think that they have reached a point in their life where they cannot contribute in ways that they have become accustomed to.
Look at professional athletes. It's hard to imagine that hitting your late 30s or early 40s would signal a time to wrap up your career. But if you can't run down the field as fast as you once could, or find it difficult to put the strength behind that long throw into the end zone, you aren't doing your team any favors by staying on. After defining your life by your time on the field for so long, however, the thought of ending that is just unimaginable for many athletes.
And it's not just on the ball field. Anyone who has a career in a specific field would find it similarly difficult to leave, which along with financial considerations is probably why so many people don't want to retire.
You can't spend 40 hours a week or more at a job for decades and then just one day give it up. That is a tremendous void to fill in your life.
We all have varying degrees of responsibility at our jobs. Ultimately, however, we are in the positions we are in because we have worked hard to get there. For many, the trail of achievements is long and impressive.
Pope Benedict XVI spent years rising up through the ranks of the Church until he was named Pope in 2005. His entire life has been devoted to his religion, and having achieved the pinnacle of success it would have been easy for him to do as so many others have done in that position over the past 600 years and stay until he died.
It takes considerable inward reflection and a strong commitment to your beliefs to stand up and say you are not able to perform the duties in the manner that is needed by the Church.
In our own Congress and on the U.S. Supreme Court are many examples of people who should probably step aside and let others take up the charge. But in addition to an individual's own perspective of their worth to society once they leave a position that has defined their lives, there is also the reality that stepping aside too often is associated with failure.
Robert Byrd had been in Congress 57 years - six in the U.S. House and 51 as a Senator from West Virginia, when he died in office at the age of 92. Daniel Inouye, a senator from Hawaii, had served for 53 years when he died in office at the age of 88. William Rehnquist had served 33 years, first as an associate justice and then as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, when he died at age 81.
No one should ever besmirch the achievements of these men, or others like them, who spent lifetimes devoted to public service. But neither should people think that these men were able to perform in their later years at the level they did earlier in their careers as they worked their way up the ladder of success.
Yet that is what happens.
No one wants to feel as though they are being put out to pasture, that they have outlived their usefulness to the world or that they no longer are able to contribute in a positive way to society. But what is missing from that conversation is there is a huge gap between living at the pinnacle of success and being a burden on society.
Successful retirees spend a lot of time finding other ways to contribute. Our needs, overall in society, are great; far greater than our ability to fill them. Every day millions of people who spent lifetimes defining themselves by their careers readjust, discover new passions and offer years of contributions to their communities and beyond.
Getting to that point, however, requires getting beyond defining yourself entirely by what you are, and instead using that as a springboard to what you have yet to become.
Pope Benedict XVI can serve as an inspiration to folks who are nearing that age of retirement, have the financial means, yet are reluctant to let go of what they have because they feel that is all that defines their life.
Retirement isn't the end, it is a new beginning.