Today, I want to follow up the perspective on aging and dying that I called “rising above decline.” As I promised, I will be using a tennis tournament to point to the differences that strike me.
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Now about the tennis tournament. To make this work, I am going to follow a particular player through a tournament. Since I was sure that Roger Federer was going to win Wimbledon this year (he didn’t: Jo-Wilfred Tsongas defeated him), I’m going to imagine that he gains, at each stage, what Erik Erikson says he would gain if “life” were a tennis tournament. I’m going to come back to the tournament metaphor several times, I think All of them are going to imagine that Roger Federer won Wimbledon this year, which, alas, he did not do. I like the tournament metaphor, though, because it is familiar and graphic and goes in the general direction of my argument. I always consider that last one a plus.
Here are the two parts for today. If you distinguish, as I proposed in “Rising Above Decline,” the trajectories of the body and of the “self,” we see how different those trajectories are—or, rather, how different they might be. In the first application, I will trace a body through the tournament. It loses. Not to spoil the suspense. In the second application, I will trace a self through the tournament. You could win this one. The goal of the opponents you will face in this tournament isn’t to kill you; it is to defeat you. There is no reason why you have to be defeated. That’s what I think, anyway, and I have played enough really bad games that I think you ought to listen to me.
If you imagine life as a tournament and your body as an entrant in the tournament, you can easily pick out opponents. Events and conditions that damage your body are opponents. Your body never recovers from having lost the use of arms and legs in a car crash. “You” might; there are perfectly happy quadriplegics; but your body doesn’t. You can survive measles with no adverse effects at all. You won that round. You can live with persistently high levels of stress. You win that round too, but you are disadvantaged by it in later rounds. But at some round or another, an enemy will defeat you (your body) and you will drop out of the tournament. Erickson has eight stages (about which, more later) and the tournament metaphor recognizes that you could lose at any of them.
The most substantial point to be made of the bodily tournament is that you will lose. No one wins this tournament. You can to better than expected, but eventually you will meet an opponent who is tougher than you are—cancer, say, or pneumonia, or heart attack—and you will drop from the bracket. In saying all that, I have used the tournament bracket to define “mortality;” nothing more.
If, on the other hand, you picture your “self,” rather than your body, as the entrant in the tournament, then everything is different. You still face opponents. One of the great values of Erikson’s system is that you know what opponents you are going to face. And you might lose to any of those opponents. If you come up against “role-confusion” as an opponent, for instance—and in Erikson’s Stage 5, you will—you could play a bad game and lose. The result of losing to that opponent is that you really don’t formulate a notion of who you are that you can accept and commit to. You don’t form, in words I have come to like a great deal, “an accurate and acceptable self-image.” On the other hand, you could beat all these opponents and face, in the finals, “despair.” That’s the last opponent, as Erikson conceives of it.
But you don’t have to lose even this final match. You can win and you can be undefeated even at the very last when your self goes away. So the trajectory of the tournament in which your self plays could be entirely different from the tournament in which your body plays. The body will inevitably decline, but “you” may rise above it. It will lose, but “you” need not.
Enough, probably too much, about mortality. It is the other tournament that will concern us from here on out. I’m in Stage 8. According to Erikson, the opponent I am currently battling is “stagnation.” I’m doing pretty well, but I got banged up some in several of the earlier rounds so we’ll have to see how it goes.
Your table is not showing up correctly yet.
Did I find you?
You did. You were sitting crosslegged on the sofa preparing a book of friends’ names and addresses so you could take them with you. You were fourteen.