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Closing Doors

Ken Cutler

MY FAVORITE CLASS freshman year in college was introductory psychology. I found the lectures interesting, the textbook fascinating, and the course much less time-consuming than my engineering classes. Based on my positive experience, I decided I’d take a class called psychology of personality as an elective. What I didn’t realize was that many students considered the professor to be something of an oddball.

My first—and only—day in the class was surreal. The professor kept repeating that his class was “designed to be a real system.” Multiple times, he exclaimed, “The sincere student will experience closure at the conclusion of this real system.”

Apparently, grades for the class weren’t determined on the basis of tests, but on some nebulous project requirement. At the end of the hour, the professor mentioned something about many students being “weirded out” of his classes. That was me. I immediately dropped his class and signed up for economics.

While I never regretted ditching that second psychology class, the professor’s statement about “closure” stuck with me. What was he talking about? It seems closure is a fairly complex concept in psychology. Don’t ask me to explain the intricacies—remember, I dropped the course.

The best working definition I’ve found: “Closure is the sense of resolution or completion of a life event, problem, or situation.” There are several important areas of my life where I’ve desired and, to some degree, achieved closure.

I was a driven student in high school. Good grades and college board test scores were a major part of my adolescent self-image. I achieved my academic goals, finishing high school with a perfect transcript, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores that exceeded my wildest fantasies, and a hefty college scholarship. I felt closure at graduation, but it was an uncomfortable emotion. For some reason, on that day, the academic achievements for which I’d worked so hard seemed meaningless.

My father died in 2001 and my mother in 2013. I had a good relationship with both of them. Although I grieved their passing, I didn’t feel I had unresolved issues with either. I was able to spend significant time with my father in the months leading up to his death. I asked a lot of questions and wrote down his answers. This process was a blessing that eventually helped me to feel closure in our relationship.

My mother, unfortunately, had dementia for years before she died at age 91. Still, when she died, I did experience closure. I had been grieving the gradual loss of my mom for years, and this was just the final stage.

Another area of my life where closure was important to me was ending my 38-year career with my first employer. For years, I imagined how I might feel on my retirement day. Would it be bittersweet, recalling the emotions I felt at my high school graduation? Would I regret retiring? I almost retired after year 36 to work for another company. The decision, however, didn’t feel right, and I ended up declining the job offer.

When I finally did retire two years later, I was satisfied the time was right. To help further my sense of closure, I wrote a piece looking back on my career and posted it on LinkedIn, later adapting it for a HumbleDollar article. My coworkers also helped me by holding a farewell luncheon.

In addition, they gave me a picture of the nuclear power plant where I’d worked, which they all signed, along with their congratulations and best wishes. Strangely, my last day in the office didn’t generate much emotion. I quietly turned in my computer and drove the familiar route home that I’d traveled almost 10,000 times before.

Psychologist Gene Cohen identified a phase of aging he calls the “summing-up phase.” This phase has been described as “a time of review and resolution and heralds a desire to give back. The review is of one’s life with recognition of its meaning. It is a time of putting photos in albums, of writing memoirs.”

I may be a little young for this phase, which according to Cohen typically occurs between the late 60s and the 80s. Still, I find myself periodically drawn to reflect on the big picture of my life story, which is closer to its end than its beginning. I suspect many of my fellow HumbleDollar writers and readers can relate.

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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