Heaven's Waiting Room

Total freedom is a false heaven: Postponing life in the retirement state.

Arjun S. Byju

The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, influential for his existential approach to therapy, said there were four ultimate concerns in life: freedom, death, isolation, and meaning. The first, we think, accounts partly for the last: We are free to take actions that have consequences, to author our own destiny, and as such find purpose. We are aware of our own mortality. For all the poetic value of relationships, we arrive and depart from life undeniably alone. But what if, at the end, too much freedom is the cause of our isolation? What if our desperate search for “meaning” in the twilight of life, a quest that takes us away from everything that ever mattered, makes meaning that much harder to find?

When I left for college a decade ago, my main gripe with Florida was the old people. Sarasota, the city of about 50,000 that I called home, was practically made for them. Nestled along the state’s Gulf Coast, Sarasota was first incorporated as a town in 1902. Its unique culture — one of abundant art galleries and unhurried leisure — was influenced by longtime denizen and benefactor John Ringling (of circus wealth and fame); his mansion, the Cà d'Zan, and eponymous art museum remain two of the town's biggest attractions. Both are beacons of tranquil, bygone grandeur. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Sarasota became popular with vacationers and retirees, offering a more subdued alternative to the glitz and action of the state’s Southeast corner.

With its innumerable fine restaurants — where dining al fresco is the norm all year round —live theaters, museums, and lifelong learning institutes, Sarasota is a veritable playground for geriatric bon vivants. There are miles of walkable beaches, a menagerie of parks, marinas, and tennis courts, all of which require neither reservation nor expense. There are ice cream parlors on every corner, plus a chic and walkable downtown, complete with boutiques and Parisian-style cafes. And of course, acres of golf courses. 

A friend once said that Sarasota reminded her of the fake heaven in the television show The Good Place, a town so picturesque it hints at something sinister. In that way, Sarasota is like any number of middle-American cities, complete with the usual panoply of shopping malls, gas stations, and big box stores. Still, as an angsty teenager, what stood out to me were the oxygen supply shops, the physical therapy studios, the shuffleboard courts — tools for old people, not families. The median age in the town of Venice, at the southern edge of Sarasota County, is roughly 69, over 30 years higher than the national average. 

Most of these people came to Florida, at one point, to write their final chapter, to pursue long deferred dreams, to find solace in creature comforts and sunshine — in other words, to retire. But making that journey does not, on its own, ensure success. As hard as it was for me to grow up in Sarasota as a young person, growing old there seemed harder. Retirement begs that inevitable nagging question: So now what? While it is easy to imagine being sated by limitless golf, the reality is that a lifetime of postponement and anticipation is not a path to happiness. Then again, when else but retirement — when the traditional obligations of job, family, and community dissolve — is there a time to discover the pure essence of life’s meaning? When else, we think, will you have all the time in the world?


The word “retirement” comes from the French retirer, which means to withdraw. It’s an odd etymology for a concept that hardly seems to entail shying away from anything, except maybe a job. As the US population ages, retirement, as a concept, is now front and center in our society. The AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) is the single largest interest group in the United States. Many people in America seem to be putting off their entire lives until the end: they expect to travel when they retire, pick up hobbies and learn new languages, finally get to discover their “real selves.” If anything, retirement has become more like an encroachment, a state of being that intermediates our understanding of every other part of life. Professionals fret about it constantly — retirement accounts, employer contributions — while eagerly anticipating the chance to kick back and truly live. I received lectures about planning for retirement before I even got a job. Work hard in school so you can go to a good college so you can have a good job so you can have a good retirement. I am told constantly by peers and mentors that it will arrive faster than I realize. The French have a saying: “Life begins when work ends,” which at first reads as a salutary aphorism about employment and leisure. Good, we think, to recognize that work does not define us. But why do we postpone “life” until our working years are through? What does that render our first 65 years on Earth?

I am not one to critique others’ leisure. For the millions of Americans toiling in demanding or abusive jobs — the seniors working in Amazon warehouses or gigging without health insurance — any retirement, even if tacky or unoriginal, would be a welcome reprieve. And yet in the minds of many far more privileged, the idea of retirement still serves as a kind of pressure release valve, a way to justify all the crap that you put up with before. Someday I will get to retire. It keeps you going through your banking job, your overflowing email, your thankless boss. But what struck me from my time in Florida was the conflation of well-earned respite from labor with permanent escape. Perhaps it is because of the miserable conditions of participating in modern capitalism, or some heavy marketing by the real estate industrial complex, but somewhere along the way, “retirement” also became synonymous with rebirth — a fresh perspective, an upgraded wardrobe, a new home. In particular: one with a tropical climate.

One could stop working and not leave everything behind. But more often than not in my work as a physician I have met older patients in New York and in Chicago, people in their seventh and eighth decades of life, who are picking up and moving to Florida, leaving behind close-knit communities, friends, churches and temples, children and grandchildren.

And yet the idea of sundering yourself from all that made life meaningful for a final hurrah seems not only odd, but self-injurious. Will your life really be better without all of the infrastructure that once made it bearable? Moreover, the same people who spend so much time thinking about the idea of retirement, about endless blank days on the beach, rarely have a plan for what they might do after they land in paradise.


At the height of the pandemic, a friend shared a Tweet: “If you could kick out any state in the Union, which would it be and why Florida?” The dig was well timed. But it also felt right in some more profound sense, one that had been making me queasy my entire life. Why all the hate?

Tampa — the closest large city to my home —has always been a joke, a punch line in and of itself. When Jeremy Renner appeared on SNL in 2012 as the mayor of Tampa, the audience burst into laughter at the mere thought of the place — and doubled down once Renner bragged that “Tampa got everything: cigars…tattoos, loose murders, and a gutted out Applebees you can fight in.” The same year, on 30 Rock, Tina Fey and Matt Hubbard scripted Tampa as hosting a competition called “Miss Nude Divorcée” on Christmas Eve. More comedians got in on the fun: Conan O’Brien has said Tampa is a fine place to live — if you are a mosquito. Still, this place is, somewhat, my home. This is the city where I traveled for high school debate tournaments, into which I flew for Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks for most of college, and where my father was sworn in as an American citizen, the day my family stood in red, white, and blue button-down shirts and waved little paper American flags. 

Some of the hate for Florida is standard-poverty bashing, elite discomfort with the realities of lower-middle and (gasp!) actual lower class life disguised as thoughtful cultural criticism. But by the metrics of poverty, drugs, and poor education, Mississippi or West Virginia certainly have us beat. The particular crime of Florida seems to be that we both lack cultural refinement and are actually having fun anyways. Alabamians might catch catfish with their bare hands, but in Florida, we catch whales and put them in glass tanks. Watch out for the Splash Zone! Our sins are consumerism, cringey-ness, and too much good cheer. Barrett Swanson said that Florida “render[s] us porous to sunny influences and slacken[s] our sense of self.” What undergirded my youth, and what continues to draw millions, is the prospect of that vacation mindset congealed into a permanent way of life. 

Our other sin is our symbolism of a broader American problem: disengagement. This is a land of piña coladas and daiquiris, of endless beaches and no state taxes, of tawdry consumption — lawn flamingos and embroidered doormats and nautically themed bathrooms —and nauseating ingenuousness. Vegas is for sinners, but Florida is where actual adults attend theme parks, wear floaties, urinate in pools. There is something to the old colonial hypothesis that tropical climates are simply too warm for any kind of diligence or industry. The heat bakes us into an equatorial lassitude — an autoclave, cooking away any sense of compunction. How else can you explain The Conch Republic or letting yourself play 18 holes of golf every single day for the rest of your life or how I wore sandals to class from second to twelfth grade? 

One gets the sense that the Kansans who lament the decline of the traditional family actually go to church, and spend some significant amount of time praying, and that the Vermonters who support local business bike wholeheartedly to farmers’ markets. Not in Florida. Having real convictions necessitates some personal sacrifice, one which the quintessential Floridian is unwilling to make. In Florida, we have our gated communities and liberal prostitution laws, and see no contradiction. A Florida resident doesn’t care about anything other than personal comfort, convenience, happiness. And why should she? She’s American. And she’s probably retired. 

One of my parents’ neighbors has a sign: “Luv the Guv. Make America Florida.” The irony, of course, is that Florida is already the most American state in the Union. It’s a swing state, after all, up for grabs each cycle. (Or at least it used to be. Remember the hanging chads?) Florida is diverse, in the true sense of the word — one in five Floridians was born in another country. The same philosophy that makes political (not to mention ecological) stewardship inconceivable in America is visible in Florida to an extreme. Because I have “paid my dues” (worked a punishing job and taken the least vacations of workers in any developed nations) I get to “cash out” (maximize my own bliss in every spare moment until I die). The result is a national culture that oscillates between workaholism and a kind of destructive hyper-leisure — leisure at any cost, leisure that must have no instrumental value or interest outside itself, leisure that must be so blissful, so perfectly fulfilling, as to make up for everything that came before.

Growing up, one of our favorite spots was Smugglers Cove, a miniature golf course whose highlight was live alligators. After picking out my putter, I had the option to feed the gators. I would stick a hunk of raw chicken to a makeshift fishing rod and lower my lure into the frothing, hissing mass. Then, I would yank it back just as the jaws were closing, the orange creamsicle in my other hand melting into the crook of my thumb, the gentle mist from the manmade waterfalls coating my face, mixing with sweat. I see now how hard it would have been to not have gotten acne, to not have felt blissful all the time. In the gift shop at the hospital where I work, they sell socks with a message on the soles, something for everyone to read when your feet are kicked up: “I’m retired, do it yourself!”


When I first saw Some Kind of Heaven, the 2020 documentary directed by Lance Oppenheim that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, I sank into its montage of golf carts, synchronized swimming, geriatric dancing, and water polo. Growing up, I had heard of The Villages, and was aware of the self-contained planned community in the land-locked inner belly of the state. But what exactly happened inside the sprawling gerontopolis of 130,000 residents eluded me. 

The residents of The Villages come as close as possible to no strings attached, to nobody, to nowhere at all. They are so free — from the past, from the pockets of people and culture which saw them born, initiated into the workforce, marriage, parenthood — they are practically floating. They are surrounded by others, but are still alone. 

The prevailing cultural narrative for The Villages is one of unrelenting, if fabricated, fun: a boomer utopia. STDs are rife in The Villages, as the news reported often when I was growing up. And the dancing. Some Kind of Heaven shows everyone dancing all the time in The Villages — there are parties and live music every night of the week. To dance in public requires a pause on inhibition, a messy, ungainly union of mind and body that is so infrequently achieved in our culture except with the help of alcohol. It’s hard not to read some symbolism into this perpetual danse macabre

Some Kind of Heaven profiles four residents of The Villages. Barbara, an émigré from Boston, is alone in the resort town since she lost her husband to brain cancer. Accompanied only by a New England accent and her memories — she likes to rewatch her wedding ceremony on her iPad — she continues to work, presumably because she couldn’t afford to stay in The Villages otherwise. Barbara is lonely and she doesn’t hide it. Early in the film, someone comments that moving to The Villages is like going off to college — “since nobody’s from here, everybody can be what they want to be” — which could be liberating or terrifying. Either way, Barbara is the kid who still hasn’t found her groove. She does what my mom always told me to do when I felt alone in college and puts herself out there, going out for acting club and dance club and singles club. It’s hard not to see something painfully familiar in Barbara as she introduces herself in front of a new clique (“Hi, I’m Barbara. I’m from Massachusetts.”). She asks the woman doing her nails whether it’s worth meeting a guy online. In a later scene, she taps her feet alone on the edge of a dance floor. 

Under Oppenheim’s careful scrutiny, the cracks in the idyllic village life begin to show. Inspired, Barbara decides to flirt with a man she meets while trying to buy a golf cart. His name is Lynn and he’s a card carrying member of the Jimmy Buffett club. He has two industrial sized blenders at home — that’s how committed he is to Margaritaville. Lynn takes Barbara on a date to mini-golf. Later, Barbara joins Lynn for an evening with his fellow Parrot Heads. We watch as a crowd of seniors, absolutely blitzed, dance the limbo at 5 p.m. Together, they present a vision of retirement as perpetual spring break, complete with booze and music, if a bit more arthritis. Like on spring break, hearts get broken. In the end, Barb gets the feeling that Lynn was just being nice and prefers a girl with a little more party. If she can’t connect, is it any wonder, as far away as she is from everything that had comprised her before? 

Dennis is the next subject of Some Kind of Heaven, and he’s also the most paradigmatically Floridian. Like Barbara, he is single, although he is trying hard to change that. Running from a DUI in California, Dennis hides in a camper van by night and hunts for a wealthy woman by day. He has the bronze skin and rakish confidence of a man who really might have worked in showbiz. “You know I did work for President Ford,” he says to a foxy gray haired woman he’s met beside a pool. “And Barry Manilow and Colonel Parker and Dick Smothers. A lot of people.” 

“I don’t care,” she responds.

It’s difficult to watch someone strike out in real time, even when he’s 82 years old. “I came down here from California to meet some wealthy women and get set up for life,” Dennis muses. “A nice-looking lady with some money, that looks good, that I’d be not embarrassed to be seen on the street with.” Having struck out at all of the available bars and churches, he has settled on finding girls at the pools. “I just hustle them and talk to them, and get them to invite me over for cocktails,” he says about his life plan. “And then eventually I can move in with them if everything works out alright.” 

Dennis eventually finds a partner, but quickly grows restless with the arrangement. He struggles with the mundanity of his new domestic life, of making ham and mustard sandwiches for his new girlfriend, of folding laundry and watering the lawn and belonging somewhere. At the film’s end, Dennis is packing his stuff and moving on from the shelter he thought he craved.

“It’s comfortable being around her, but I have to give up the freedom.” Dennis contemplates. “Comfort or freedom? That’s the way it works. You can’t have it both ways.”

Oppenheim has a gift for the details, and his slow, observational style is well-suited for catching the minute ways in which we feel small, even in old age. At another point, we see Dennis lying on his back. He’s shirtless and watching the spinning ceiling fan. Oppenheim directs our gaze to a protrusion from Dennis’ belly button. A doughy lump, a ball of fat and viscera that bulges from his golden tummy. Dennis has an umbilical hernia, not rare at his age as muscles weaken and the contents of the abdomen protrude through the opening that connected us once to our mother. Tethered through that opening, we floated in our amniotic bath. Drank and peed, peed and drank. Maybe that’s what draws people to Florida — deep in our collective unconscious, the desire for not just submergence but return. To pools, jacuzzis, beaches, the ocean, and long before that the primordial soup that begat us all. For contained in every childish scene at The Villages, every faint feeling of summer camp and every gathering of an extracurricular club, by adults who have supposedly reached the last, latest stage of maturity, is a counterargument when it comes to the retirement ethos: why move on so linearly, why break with the past and the work and the life you forged within it, when life is such a circle anyways?

Feeble, needy, and alone, in his 80s and looking for a woman to care for him, Dennis is closer to childhood than ever before. And then, improbably, he picks up the phone and calls her. His mother.

“Hey mom. How are you?” 

We hear the tinny sound of her voice, imagine his mom, who might be well over a hundred, in her own retirement, in some facility probably far away from The Villages. She asks him about work, what he does to earn money and keep himself occupied. “I’m doing some handyman work. And I’m doing some show business stuff and DJ stuff. I’m busy all the time,” he lies, puffing insouciantly on a cigar. The problem is he isn’t busy. He typifies Yalom’s plight of freedom: although taken to be a universal good, the complete lack of external structure in retirement is debilitating, no matter how compellingly freedom calls.

The film’s final subjects are a couple named Anne and Reggie. Neither of them are very free, constrained as they are by the commitments they’ve made to each other, and as such they are a kind of foil for the documentary’s other, untethered subjects. On their 47th wedding anniversary, Reggie comes home high. He’s sobbing and claims that he has died, reincarnated, and been reborn as God. He tells Anne that he’s going off to his room to meditate. And maybe jack off. Anne tells us that Reggie had always been ‘unusual,’ but he has gotten much worse since moving to The Villages. He drives his golf cart into sprinklers, practices Tai chi on the links, and makes shirtless YouTube videos in the drivers seat of his car, speaking to the camera with a familiarity that smacks of the new millennium. Hello to everybody that’s been following me on my transformation videos…

The conflict heightens when Reggie is charged with drug possession, and Anne is forced to confront the terms of her marital union. Will she stand by her husband even as she loses him to insanity? Is her life imbued with purpose through her commitments, or is she merely saddled by them in what would otherwise be a joyful final chapter? “I did take marriage vows for better or worse,” she says. “And I did take that vow seriously.” At his hearing, Reggie prattles to a judge about a federal ruling that allowed Native Americans to use THC in religious rituals after declining representation by attorney. Needless to say, it’s not a Johnnie Cochran courtroom moment. After the mortifying trial, Anne goes to a concert and dances by herself. Still, at the film’s end, Anne and Reggie are the subjects who seem the most complete, if not the most liberated, and perhaps that’s no coincidence. Sharing a beach towel, Reggie asks Anne, “So you’ve been through a lot this last year with me…Do you feel like you’ve been permanently hurt?” Anne smiles and chuckles, “Nothing’s permanent.”

Except of course that one thing — the obvious, aside from their love. “You don’t come here to pass away,” one villager comments. “You come here to live.” Still, that ticking box of time is on every Villager’s mind, even when they deny it. “I’m what they call a frog,” Lynn, the Margarita Man, jokes in a later scene. “I’m here till I croak.” Rich, retired people have every choice in the world. Except when it comes to that.


In by Thanksgiving, out by Easter. That’s what we, the locals, used to say about them, the transients who flew south for better weather. Still, they are hardly vacationers. Six months at a time affords a certain amount of permanence, a sense of ownership. How long do you have to be away before you lose it?

Surely less than a decade, I think when I return home, this spring, and my mom and I pull into the driveway. 

Although I visit often, I wonder what can be said of my ties to this place since college, medical school, residency, and everything in between. My parents and my grandparents; the dynamic, tight-knit Indian American community that raised me, hyper-engaged, sometimes overly so — these are my people. Or, at least, I want them to be. It’s a connection that calls me back, that keeps me less free, that eats into my time but earns what freedom never can: meaning. It’s obvious, in a way, that this is what everyone in The Villages is looking for in their cheerleading squads and mock regattas and acting classes; it is also exactly what they left behind. The people, the burdens — the have to’s — that weigh us down but let us feel the ground beneath our feet. 

There are alternatives to contemporary American retirement culture. The Vikings, allegedly, practiced a form of socially mandated senicide; old people flung themselves from mountains when they were no longer able to contribute. On the other hand, in many modern Asian cultures, the concept of retirement or nursing homes is abhorrent. Fueled by a more collectivist outlook, families exist in multi-generational homes, and grandparents are cared for by their own adult children. Either way, there is that awareness of an inevitable loss of independence, of child-like reliance once again.

Once I’m done unpacking, I ask my parents to sit with me outside.

“Too hot,” my dad says.

“It’ll only be a minute.”

We settle into the weathered wooden bench that abuts the seawall, and watch the lizards scurry around our feet, one or two of them fanning out the stretchy skin on their tangerine throats. They are pumping their torsos up and down on the crackling concrete, doing push-ups. I imagine it has to do with mating, this machismo performance of color and muscle, but I’m not really sure. I remember when we used to drop this same bench in the pool during hurricanes so that it wouldn’t fly around and smash a window. 

I tell my parents that I love them. “Please visit me in California.”

“Too far,” my dad says. But I know he’s joking.

Although I’m not there yet, my sense is that the answer to retirement is not escape, but engagement. Volunteer. Share wisdom. Reach back out to the community you sprang from, that gave you sustenance — don’t run away. When I was in high school, I signed up for a youth business program; I was matched with a retiree “business buddy” who shared stories about his days of entrepreneurship and pointed me in new directions. A retired mathematics professor was kind enough to teach advanced classes at my school. Other seniors led camps for fishing, photography, and painting. This vision of retirement is not only good for the community, youth like me, but for the retiree. It blends East and West, affording older adults respect, but also celebrates their autonomy and personal accomplishments. Of course, it is less isolating to be engaged, which is why Yalom was always a proponent of group therapy. There is a healing power in acknowledgment, of being seen, that can abate that existential struggle, the knowledge that it all comes to an end. And you start to look more kindly on your own life when its purpose evolves beyond saving enough cash to abandon it.

They say that Florida is going to be underwater soon. It makes sense when I consider how the entire state sits precariously close to sea levels. The bay laps at the wall behind my parents’ house. Still, there’s a certain malice I sense among my friends when they predict this aquatic armageddon, a kind of schadenfreude. What more fitting ending for Florida, the place of too-happy people, of the old and infirm who upped and vanished from their hometowns, than a washing away?

On previous trips home, I’ve gone hunting for fossils along the Peace River, an indolent stream that meanders through the southwestern portion of Florida. The river is famous for its well preserved mammoth fossils — divers have found jaws, molars, a rare and gigantic femur — but is perhaps best known for the fossilized teeth of the megalodon. The “meg” was an enormous shark that grew up to 18 meters, three times the size of the largest recorded great white, and went extinct around 3.5 million years ago. A blip in geologic time. Finding a meg, as they are called, takes a bit of patience, but is not impossible. It helps that the average megalodon had over 250 teeth spread out over 5 rows. Still, the reason there are so many megs here in the first place is quite simple. It is because the whole state used to be underwater.

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