Saturday, October 20, 2007

Integrity vs. Despair?

I developed a fondness for Erik Erikson when I took my first psychology course some time around the age of the dinosaurs. Freud was fine and Carl Rogers was all the rage - I admit never really liking Skinner - but Erikson's Eight Stages seemed to resonate with me. I think it was the fact that his emphasis on life continuing to evolve after the age of 18 appealed to me. All of the other developmental theorists were obsessed with infancy and oedipal issues; I could care less. I remember thinking that having three stages devoted to life beyond acne and masturbation was probably a good thing.

Over the years, I've mapped my progress on the old Erikson scale. Young Adulthood had some interesting twists and spins. The old "Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation" seemed to make a lot of sense and certainly fit my understanding of the ways of the world.

Middle Adulthood's "Generativity vs. Self absorption or Stagnation" also has made some sense. Although I have no children that I know of (and I think I would if I did) my generativity has been mostly about caring for "other people's children" and the various artistic products I have created during this period (music, writing, photography - this blog???).

According to Dr. Erikson, this Middle Adulthood phase is supposed to last until one is around retirement age, but I am finding that I have occasionally slipped ahead into the next stage from time to time. That stage is what Erikson called "Late Adulthood: 55 or 65 to Death;" not very sexy, but probably accurate. Anyway, in this stage, the big conflict is over one's sense of satisfaction of their life. Described as "Integrity vs. Despair" the challenge to the individual at this age is trying to determine if their life has had any meaning and whether one's made a contribution to life.

Well, perhaps it is indeed a bit premature for me to start to engage in this debate, but I've found myself doing a lot more reflecting these days than I have before.

Last spring, you will recall I attended a major college reunion and saw people who I hadn't laid eyes on in over 30 years. In some cases they looked exactly the same but with a lot of good Hollywood makeup on. In other cases, I did not recognize the person at all. Several times I heard my self whisper, "...if he looks that bad, how bad do you suppose I look?" Don't answer that question.

I'm not exactly sure if this is what Erikson was referring to, but you get the point.

A week or so ago I attended the wedding of one of my nieces - see previous blog entry. It was great, but again I remember when she was born and "the nostalgia gods" were poured out heavy doses of retrospection as we tooled around through some of the old neighborhoods where I had spent several of my earlier Erikson stages. The place where the reception was held, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I had not stepped foot in in over 40 years. And it looked almost exactly the same.

Topping this off was the most recent experience of nostalgic rollercoaster. I have "re-connected" with a person whom I first met around 1973 when he was around 12 years old. Now he is a good husband, father of two and a successful businessman. But in my reflection, he's still 12.

I'll spare you the details except to say he was a camper and I was a camp counselor. In actuality, I was (and am) not much older than him, and at this point on our lives, we're practically the same age.

We've corresponded via e-mail a few times and I am afraid I'll scare him off with all of my questions. He's already revealed some of what his compatriots of the time have done over the years and I've been enjoying reading how these other kids have turned out. Most of their choices of occupations seem to fit perfectly with the types of personalities they exhibited those many years ago. Is it all that predictable? Could someone have predicted what I would be doing 35 years later?

The whole nostalgia experience literally has my head spinning. I think it has something to do with those synapses that have been sitting around dormant for a couple of decades all of a sudden getting a jolt. As Jean Shepherd was fond of saying, "it's amazing the crap you remember!" And the net effect makes one a little delirious.

So, even though I should be still focused on that generativity thing, I'm kinda enjoying the "looking back" more commonly associated with Integrity.

This current self-reflection ends with the words of Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, "What a Long Strange Trip It's Been."


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