I have a friend who took early retirement a few years ago and discovered that it wasn't all it was cut out to be. People who worked at boring jobs might find retirement just another shade of gray, he said recently, but people who worked at something to which they were committed, something they really believed in, need to find something similarly meaningful when they retire.

This is a time of year when a great many young people -- students graduating from high school and college students finishing another grueling academic year -- are wondering what it's all about. What's the point of the hard work, the discipline, the sacrifice and what lies ahead.

Last year, speaking to the graduating class at Iona College, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, directing his remarks to the parents as much as to the graduates, put it this way: "They will have to decide soon the ultimate question -- whether or not to live for something, or simply go from experience to experience, concerned about nothing more than what's in it for them.

"They'll have to deal with the most fundamental question of all: Why do we make the effort? Why do we work? Why do we try? . . . For sustenance? For family? For money? For pleasure? For power?"

And then he raised another fundamental question: Parents have the obligation to help their children find the answers, but do today's parents "have the right?

"Can we, who found the ultimate truth so elusive for so long, tell them with confidence now of the futility of gathering up riches and the things of the world?

"It's clear to us that all the newly won power over space and time, the conquest of the forces of nature, the fulfilling of age-old challenges, have not made us any happier or surer of ourselves.

"We have built rockets and spaceships and shuttles, we have harnessed the atom, we have dazzled a generation with a display of our technological skills. But we still spend millions of dollars on aspirin and psychiatrists and tissues to wipe away the tears of anguish and uncertainty that result from our confusion and our emptiness.

"Most of us have achieved levels of affluence and comfort unthought of two generations ago.

"We've never had it so good, most of us.

"Nor have we ever complained so bitterly about our problems.

"The closed circle of pure materialism is clear to us now -- aspirations become wants, wants become needs and self-gratification becomes a bottomless pit.

"All around us we have seen success in this world's terms become ultimate and desperate failure . . . . Teen-agers and college students, raised in affluent surroundings and given all the material comforts our society can offer, commit suicide.

"Entertainers and sports figures achieve fame and wealth but find the world empty and dull without the solace or stimulation of drugs.

"Men and women rise to the top of their professions after years of struggling. But despite their apparent success, they are driven nearly mad by a frantic search for diversions . . . anything to fill the diminishing interval between their existence and eternity.

"Do you think they would believe us if we told them today, what we know to be true: That after the pride of obtaining a degree and, maybe later, another degree and after their first few love affairs, that after earning their first big title, their first shiny new car and traveling around the world for the first time and having had it all . . . they will discover that none of it counts unless they have something real and permanent to believe in.

"That the philosophers were right. That St. Francis, Buddha, Mohammed, Maimonides -- all spoke the truth when they said the way to serve yourself is to serve others; and that Aristotle was right before them, when he said the only way to assure yourself happiness is to learn to give happiness . . . .

"Do we have the right now to tell them that when St. Francis begged the Lord to teach him to want to console instead of seeking to be consoled . . . that he was really being intensely selfish? Because he knew the only way to be fulfilled and pleased and happy was to give instead of trying to get."

These are thoughtful words one might expect more from a man of the cloth than a politician. But to any parent who has tried to help his or her child grapple with the question "why?" they will have a particular resonance. It is the mission of each generation to help the next generation face these questions and find the right answers, but in so doing, we are forced to examine our own lives and to realize that no matter what age, to live we need something to believe in.