The Integral Years: Psychology of Emerging Elderhood.
Much of the impetus for my study of elderhood as vocation came originally from the teachings of Donald L. Gelpi, S.J., specifically his theology of the human person (Gelpi, 1978). Gelpi outlined stages of faith, as identified by James Fowler, Sam Keen, and others, and connected them to human development theories of, notably, Erik Erikson and Carl Jung.
Gelpi showed how the stages of the human life cycle and the stages of faith development could illuminate our understanding of an individual human person’s growth in faith. Further, he showed how those individual life cycles could interact through the gifts of the Holy Spirit as well as the temperaments and God-given personality types with which each human person is endowed. Life transformations, and shifts between stages of faith, can occur not only in religious experience but also in moral, social-political, intellectual, and emotional spheres. (Gelpi, 1978)
From that study I came away with an appreciation for the individuality and complementarity of human development, including the possibilities for a variety of experiences of God in and throughout a life cycle. Growth in faith often bears its finest fruit not until late middle age or early late adulthood.
Life Span Development
Erik H. Erikson, working with Joan Erikson and others, developed a theory of life–cycle stages, which grew to encompass eight stages throughout the lifespan, from infancy to older old age. Each stage of this cycle represents a particular phase of psychosocial development, including the basic conflicts the personality confronts. Unresolved issues continue to follow the individual through life and color later stages. The basic issues that arise at the earlier stages are recapitulated in the senior years.
The stages, with their basic conflicts and emerging strengths, are:
Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
I. Infancy: Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust. HOPE
II. Early Childhood: Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt. WILL.
III. Play Age: Initiative vs. Guilt. PURPOSE
IV. School Age: Industry vs. Inferiority. COMPETENCE
V. Adolescence: Identity vs. Identity Confusion. FIDELITY
VI. Young Adulthood: Intimacy vs. Isolation. LOVE
VII. Adulthood: Generativity vs. Stagnation. CARE
VIII. Old Age: Integrity vs. Despair, disgust. WISDOM
(Erikson, 1982: 32–33, 56–57)
Hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom: these are the virtues, or ego strengths, which can be gained in each stage, as the individual human person encounters a series of crises, or challenges, which may be resolved positively and build on each other: trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, generativity, and integrity. Or they may not be. Adverse outcomes may include mistrust, shame, doubt, guilt, inferiority, identity confusion, isolation, stagnation, self–absorption, despair, and disgust. Each of these crises and virtues and potential dangers has its primary phase but all also recur in each stage.
These are the standard eight stages. To them Joan Erikson added a ninth (Erikson, 1997):
IX. Older Old Age, recapitulation of earlier conflicts, possibility of gerotranscendence. Joan Erikson speaks of elders, people in their eighties and nineties, coming “to terms with the dystonic [negative] elements in their life experiences in the ninth stage.” (Erikson, 1997: 114). The hope she holds out is of gerotranscendence, (Erikson, 1997: 124) and she quotes the definition proposed by Lars Tornstam and his colleagues:
Simply put, gerotranscendence is a shift in meta perspective, from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one, normally accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction. Gerotranscendence is regarded as the final stage in a possible natural progression towards maturation and wisdom. (Tornstam)
Stage IX, Older Old Age, can been seen as an extension or refinement of stage VIII, in facing the end–task of preparation for death, preparation for mortality and eternity. But should this be the task of only older old age? Perhaps that is where it most frequently and most compellingly falls, in the course of time, but as part of the work of the church should we not prepare others and ourselves, at all ages of life, for mortality and immortality, through ritual – funerals, festivals (saints’ days) – and preaching? “We proclaim his death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)
For our purposes the seventh and eighth stages, and the transition between them, are the most apposite. This transition between adulthood and old age is the time Mary Catherine Bateson describes as “Adulthood II” (Bateson) and Peter Laslett describes as the “Third Age” (Laslett). This can be a harvest time of liberation, a celebration of generativity and a commencement of integration – or, as the Eriksons pointed out, of stagnation and a mounting despair and increasing disgust.
Stage VII. Adulthood: Generativity vs. Stagnation
The seventh stage is characterized by the challenge to overcome stagnation with generativity, developing the personality strength identified as care. This generativity is not simply the creation of biological progeny: it includes any effort to extend the scope of one's creative energies beyond the self to the betterment of others.
“Live first for others” might well serve as the motto for this stage. Perpetuation of something larger than one’s self – a sense of meaning and purpose beyond seeing to the service of one's own needs and desires – becomes a key to life.
Indeed, decades ago I remarked that happy grandchildren were a sign of a well–lived life. The friend I said this to recently introduced me to one of her own happy grandchildren. We can all have “happy grandchildren” if we do not confine the set to our own progeny. This is one of the basic insights to be gleaned from the development through the ages of understanding the promise to Abram that his children would be as many as the stars. “‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He added, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” (Genesis 15:5. JPS)
Generativity is not simply about genetic progeny. The apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, drew on the promise inherent in John the Baptist's remark that God could raise up children to Abraham “from these stones.” (Matthew 3:9)
“Informing the developmental challenges of integrity vs. despair is the hope ‘that we may gain a wise heart’ (Psalm 90:12) in late adulthood and finish our life span in a manner that is a testimony to our faith.” (Kelcourse: 17)
In Erikson’s view, we live faithfully by negotiating life’s predictable crises and finding in them opportunities for greater trust, a stronger will and sense of purpose, with confidence in our competence and fidelity as we mature.
“Living faithfully in adulthood allows us to love and care, and gives us a heart of wisdom. Through faith we express our capacity for mutuality in relation to others and, ultimately, in relation to God.” (Kelcourse: 36)
Generativity, Erikson writes, “always invites the possibility of an energetic shift to productivity and creativity in the service of the generations.” (Erikson, 1982: 53)
Transition between Stages VII and VIII
Part of the job of moving from middle adulthood to later adulthood – that transition between Erikson’s stages VII and VIII – is coming to accept the life one has had as the life that one will have, and yet understanding that “it is never too late” to develop character and undergo continuing faith transformation (or to grow in faith and wisdom).
This phase of life allows for not only a developmental task transition from generativity to the wisdom born of integrative reflection on, and acceptance of, experience but also offers the potentiality of a faith shift from one earlier stage of faith to another and possibly accompanied by a parallel moral development. The transition from adulthood to old age can be a fruitful time. And it can involve painful realizations and new insights.
The challenge of old age, in psychosocial development, is to reconcile the issue of integrity vs. despair. This task, properly accomplished, results in wisdom. Integrity involves the acceptance of the inevitability of the life one has had. Hence “Erikson’s description of an elder as someone who has ‘come to the point of being able to understand his place in the world and the life he has lived in it.”’ (Richmond: 48)
An elder, in terms of psychosocial development, is a person who has achieved (successfully accomplished) the life task of integrity, that is, reconciling the crisis between self–acceptance and despair, which resolves in wisdom.
Others may indeed have rejected – or failed to confront – this developmental task and receded into “dogmatism, a compulsive pseudointegrity that, where linked to undue power, can become coercive orthodoxy.” (Erikson 1997:64) Others may experience this fragile rigidity, and find themselves on the receiving end of angry assertions, which are being brandished as a replacement for considered argument.
Anger, anxiety, frustration, fearfulness, and depression – these accompaniments to loss, decline in health or personal power, and the inevitable advance of mortality – may be reflected beyond the homes of the elderly. While it is those who are coming to the end of their days with an unexamined or static faith who are most likely to arrive at this place of anxiety, the factors that provoke negative emotional responses have an impact on all elderly. Just as those negative responses do. Anger, anxiety, fearfulness, and despair: these are the manifestations of a failure at life’s last developmental tasks.
Review of life – reflection on life’s experiences, taking an inventory of the past – happens for people when they confront their mortality, or personal failure. This can occur earlier in life, if illness or tragedy strikes or external forces intervene. In old age a review of life’s challenges and gained strengths – or accumulated weaknesses and disappointments – may be a prominent feature. Then the challenge will be to accept life as it was and has been – and to welcome the future with hope.
Dag Hammarskjöld, on an early page of Markings, his aphoristic private journal, wrote:
Tomorrow we shall meet,
Death and I—
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake.
But in the meantime how grievous the memory
Of hours frittered away.
But later he came to a resolution, a sense of gratitude and acceptance:
“— Night is drawing nigh—”
For all that has been— Thanks!
To all that will be— Yes!
(Hammarskjöld: 6, 83)
Structural Development and Stages of Faith
Another, quite different, theoretical school offers complementary insights into human development. Following the work of Jean Piaget, structural development theorists emphasize cognitive development.
The stages of structural change are seen as sequential, logical, invariant, and universal. “Faith in the understanding of structural development has to do with the ability to find and make meanings as the sequential phases of our lives unfold.” (Kelcourse: 25)
Structural theorists have found that stability, not change, is dominant for much of adult life, and for many, progress only goes so far. Is this a tragedy or realism? Accepting others the way they are, where they are, is itself part of the wisdom that comes with the transformation of the aging process into a journey into elderhood, from simply accepting age as fate to embracing elderhood as vocation. “In a structural system,” Elizabeth Liebert reminds us, “there is no theoretical necessity for change.”
Without sufficient dissonance to require a new structure, the person will not change stages. Therefore, stage change does not inevitably result from advancing age. In fact, substantial empirical data suggests that many adults do not change structural stages after their early twenties. Because stage change in adults is relatively rare, permanent developmental equilibrium is quite possible, and a single transition over the entire period of adulthood is not out of the question. Therefore, though simplistic attempts to move people to more complex stages will most likely prove futile, developmentally sensitive environments can create a context that encourages change. (Liebert: 30)
Structural stages are stable, representing as they do a whole outlook on life; and yet under certain circumstances they may become inadequate to experience, and a new way of seeing life may be sought as a result. “Certain predictable or unpredictable life tasks, such as leaving home or receiving a diagnosis of cancer, may provide a context for constructing a new meaning-system.” (Liebert: 31)
It is the work of the church, not to push or provoke these occasions, but to receive those who experience them in a community of welcome, of hospitality and insight, so as to assist the people undergoing transformation, to help them bear into the world – their world – a new and richer way of seeing that world.
Drawing upon such psychological systems as the aforementioned, including structural development theories, and upon extensive research interviews, James Fowler and his colleagues developed a sequence of stages of faith development.
Fowler's Structural Developmental Stages of Faith (Fowler, 1992a: 16–17)
0. Primal faith (infancy)
1. Intuitive–projective faith (early childhood)
2. Mythic–literal faith (childhood and beyond)
3. Synthetic–conventional faith (adolescence and beyond)
4. Individuative–reflective faith (young adulthood and beyond)
5. Conjunctive faith (early mid–life and beyond)
6. Universalizing faith (mid–life and beyond)
James Fowler puts his finger on the desire to reach a final integrated understanding and conception of life in faith. Yet at the same time as he identifies the stages of faith as sequential, Fowler cautions that this is not a way to judge people who are different from ourselves but a way to understand each other.
One reflection on the Fowler stages of faith is the reminder that not everyone proceeds through every stage of the sequence. Among adult congregation members will be people who have come to rest at any stage beyond the primal. These can be of similar age and appearance. Impatience for all to reach an idealized stage (4 or 5 or 6) will not make it happen. Serenity, courage, and wisdom should be the pastor’s watchwords here.
Properly used, Fowler advises, stage theories should not pigeon-hole or stereotype:
The stage theories should facilitate our understanding of persons whose ways of being in faith may differ significantly from our own. It is possible to point to persons of serenity, courage, and genuine faith commitment who would be described, even as adults, in terms of any stage from intuitive projective to universalizing, inclusively. (Fowler, 1992b: 370)
Present in the same congregation will probably be older people at different stages of faith. In other words, most folks will not be at the same place. Each stage represents a way of making meaning of the world and finding purpose within it. What the pastoral leader may wish to focus on is not expectation that people will “move on” from their current stage but preparedness to guide those people who are experiencing transitions, to making them in a healthy and life–giving way.
Congregations and Stage Theory
Fowler points out that congregations may not only have people within them who are at different stages but asks an important question for further study: “the question of whether congregations exhibit what I have called ‘modal developmental levels,’ expectable levels of development in adult faith.” (Fowler, 1992b: 382) If, then, the characteristic level of a congregation's leaders is stage 3, “the synthetic–conventional stage of faith and the interpersonal stage of selfhood,” this will color the experience of the whole congregation.
“Persons best described by these stages feel that their very selfhood is constituted by their roles and their relationships. Such persons long for harmony and conflict–free living in the community of faith. The maintenance of peace and the restoration of good feelings and unity within the community frequently loom as far more important to them than dealing with issues that might cause conflict.” (Fowler, 1992b: 375–376)
“The underlying metaphor for religious community most commonly held by persons described here is that of the ideal or romanticized extended family.” (Fowler, 1992b: 376) This is an attractive, and at the same time limiting, metaphor. Continued protestations by parish leaders, “we are a family,” indicate a strong desire to function at this level. For parishioners at stage 3, an invitation to recognize the possibility of a differentiated perspective may evoke anxieties about the destabilization of identity, of self in relation to others, that might come with a stage transition. “Persons in this stage are likely to experience a special kind of crisis at times of loss or threat to their central relationships and roles.” (Fowler, 1992b: 377)
Implications for pastoral leadership include cultivating an awareness of where people are, as well as a vision of what they might become, as a faith community, and embracing an opportunity to practice the virtues of elderhood, including serenity, courage, and wisdom. As colleague Robert Dietel pointed out to me (in conversation, November 13, 2013) for a congregation to work toward this vision may require substantial innovation and often uncomfortable effort.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Tolstoy) However, some patterns are discernible. From family systems theory we gain insights useful here. Congregations function like family systems. The question is: how healthily do they function?
The same qualities that allow for ‘familiness’ (that is, stability) in the first place are precisely what hinder change (that is, less stability) when the family system is too fixed. (Friedman, 1985: 25)
Differentiation (maturity) means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say ‘I’ when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we.’ It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) nonanxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and emotional being. It can be measured somewhat by the breadth of one’s repertoire of responses when confronted with crisis. (Friedman, 1985: 27)
Where inability to remain nonanxious, or to differentiate oneself from one’s peer group, would seem to indicate a lack of the gifts of growth in faith and in maturity required in a ministry of elderhood, the presence of these qualities would point to the possibility of a call to elderhood. It follows that in the family system of congregational life, as in one’s own household, there is a role for leaders, including elders, who exhibit the ability to “maintain the kind of nonanxious presence needed to keep the family on a course for change.” But, Friedman warns, “Anxious systems are less likely to allow for differentiated leaders, while leaderless systems are more likely to be anxious... It is the maintaining of self–differentiation while remaining a part of the family that optimizes the opportunities for fundamental change.” (Friedman, 1985: 29)
An interim minister recently observed:
Churches don’t cling to the status quo just because they’re recalcitrant; they cling to the status quo because change feels disadvantageous. The fear of losing something trumps any expectation of new benefits. In one sense, change is not just a spiritual hurdle, it’s a challenge to something that’s hardwired biologically. (Bullock)
Transition into Elderhood
By age 55 and older, many of life’s developmental tasks have been confronted, with lingering effects – whether in success or failure.
In late middle age, adults begin to turn from the concerns of generativity vs. stagnation and self–absorption, and may have gained the attendant virtue (ego strength) of care for others. This positive task of generativity, provision for progeny, progeny understood in the wide sense of future generations and faraway peoples, gradually gives way in old age to a more interior struggle, a journey to integrity, as the person reflects on experiences of life and comes to terms with them.
The challenge, to all of us who are growing older, is this: Do we accept the life we have lived as the only one that has been given us? Do we have the willingness to accept grace and receive forgiveness, to be blessed however undeservingly and to be willing, further, to extend that blessing to others?
The ongoing quest for the meaning and purpose of life is now in part reflective. The focus is on vocation, calling, in a new phase of life. How have we responded to the calling inherent in our humanity, in manhood or womanhood, and specifically in our calling to become the individual human persons we are called to be? Can we respond to that call, now, as the persons we are, rather than the persons we had hoped to be?
It is true, as it was in ancient days, that there comes a time in life when a man or woman is no longer contending for the highest rung that can be reached on a career ladder, is no longer the householder providing for the comforts of family and the raising of children, is no longer the active executive making day–to–day decisions, but has reached a place with different tasks and callings. These new tasks and callings may be voluntary. As one pastoral elder in his 80s said to me: “At my age a person knows what they are good at and that is what they do.” (Herbert O'Driscoll, personal conversation, January 30, 2010) Others just come. And so some, perceiving the change, step back from active executive leadership and “take their place at the council fire” among the acknowledged elders of the community, offering wisdom and insight gained by reflection on experience.
Some folks will have worked through the issues of maturity as charted by Erik and Joan Erikson. Others will have stopped somewhere along the way. Indeed the Eriksons do not hold out the expectation that all will or even must reach the final stage of the cycle, as if it were the top rung of a ladder, or advancement to top rank. This charting of stages is intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive, of human development.
Sources as diverse as the psychologist James Fowler and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor speak of fullness as a benison of living. The letter to the Ephesians refers to the end or goal of life as a growing in faith – until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13. NIV)
Fullness, completion, perfection in life, a rounding-out of one’s years, in a way still keeping faith and finding joy, is a blessing we hope for, a goal we strive for, and sometimes reach.
In all humility we might call the story of growth in faith a journey toward holiness, seeking completion as human persons. Indeed, Donald Nicholl, as he taught and wrote on holiness in world religions, quoted the saying of Léon Bloy, “There is only one sadness, the sadness of not being a saint.”
Ordinarily we allow ourselves to be saddened by failures of every kind, the failure to become so famous as we had once dreamed of being, the failure to be rich or beautiful or a model of health. All these failures, and endless others, are constant and nagging sources of sadness to us throughout our lives. But when we reach the end of our lives we shall realize that none of these things which have caused us so much heartache are really cause for ultimate sadness – none of them matters any longer. The only sadness, now, is the sadness of not being a saint. (Nicholl: 28)
There is tragedy in human beings not reaching their human potential, not becoming in fullness of being what God is calling them to become. In reaching toward that fullness, however, there is joy.
When I worked in marketing, people would ask me what I did and I would say, “marketing.” They would respond, “Oh! You are in sales.” No, I would respond. In marketing we do not sell anything, we create the conditions in which sales can occur.
When I became a pastor, people would ask me what I do and I would say, “I’m a pastor.” Sometimes they would respond, “Oh! Are you going to try to convert me?” And I might respond, “We create the conditions in which conversions may occur.”
Of course by conversions I did not simply mean the stereotype of instantaneous one–time experiences so often assumed, I would mean ongoing conversion – growth in faith, leading to a continuing and lifelong transformation of experience of God, self, and other.
It is not that we pastors try to convert anybody; we work to create the conditions in which conversions can occur and lives can change and people can keep on growing in faith. These are the developmentally sensitive environments that congregations can become, which will allow people to find their way to broader ways of making meaning.