Federer Plays Erikson, Round 2

I’ve been using Roger Federer’s progress through the U. S. Open to pursue my idea that Erik Erikson’s famous set of developmental stages can be thought of as a tournament in some ways.  To compensate for the fact that there are only seven rounds in the tournament and eight stages in Erikson’s scheme, I started Roger on Stage 2.  His opponent in the tournament was Giraldo, a Columbian, whom he defeated without much trouble, although he had a run of careless games in the first set.  In Erikson’s system, the opponent to be defeated is the sense of shame or doubt.  The great virtue of that stage is a sense of autonomy.  Ideally, autonomy wins, but is tempered a little by shame.  After all, in English, “shamelessness” is considered to be a really bad trait.

Today, Federer faced and defeated the Israeli, Dudi Sela, who also won his first round game.  The further you go in the tournament, the more you meet opponents who, like you, have met the challenges they have faced.  In a tennis tournament, the challenges may have been quite different.  He beat a baseline player; you beat a serve and volley player, for instance.  In Erikson’s scheme, each person faces the same challenges because they are rooted in the nature of our development as humans.  Federer didn’t have much trouble with Sela, defeating him 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.  The question for today is what that means as we project it onto Erikson’s stages.

The opponent, what Eriksonians call the “dystonic tendency,” is guiltThe strength to be mastered and made part of the person’s repertoire is initiative.  The best outcome in this struggle is thought to be the victory of initiative, but an initiative that has had to take account of guilt.[1]  If guilt were to triumph, it would take the form of inhibition, which is called “the malignant tendency.”  If initiative were to triumph without ever having to take account of guilt, it would take on a “maladaptive tendency” called ruthlessness.   The strength we grow into in this stage is called PURPOSE.  Clearly, that requires the victory of initiative, but, in this way of conceiving of it, it is a victory over a real opponent and doing what you have to do to achieve that victory gives you a solid and settled sense that you may have and pursue purposes without shading over into ruthlessness.

This stage has meant a good deal to me personally.  Guilt was a major tool in the culture I grew up in.  It was felt that punishing children in direct and overt ways could achieve only an outer compliance, but that guilt—a violation not of the child’s standards, but of what the child’s standards should be—would result in the internalization of those goals.  They would become, in time, the child’s own authentic goals.  That notion was the standard of middle class parenting when I was growing up and I have no objection to it in principle.

It can be overdone, of course, and even the standard dose can be too much for a child who is more than usually vulnerable to it.[2]  It’s hard to know these things for sure but I’d guess that I was a guilt-accepting child in a guilt-inducing culture.  Following Erikson’s set of tradeoffs, that should produce in my life, substantial reductions in initiative, the syntonic value.  My life has never been marked by aggressive goals, let alone by the dark surplus the Eriksons call “ruthlessness,” so maybe I struck the balance a little more to the side of guilt and a little less to the side of initiative than the Eriksons would think ideal.  I have no idea at all.  It has been “the way my life has been” and, while it would be silly to say it could not have been otherwise, I’m happy with it.  I do think it might have set me up for the next stage, but we’ll consider that when the time comes.

Now to return to Roger Federer and his prospects, his next actual opponent will be Marin Cilic, a hard-hitting Croat, who ate Australian Bernard Tomic’s lunch in three quick sets today.  Federer’s Eriksonian opponent will be “inferiority.”  If that turns out to be the German Tommy Haas, who has been a top ten player at his peak, Federer will need to draw on PURPOSE, the strength he earned in Stage 3.


[1] I try to distinguish, when I can, between actual guilt and feelings of guilt.  In developmental psychology, it is the feelings that really matter.

[2] When I see a sentence like that, I am reminded that we get vulnerable from the Latin vulna, “a wound.”

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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