Federer Plays Erikson, Round 6

It has taken me a little while to recover from the semifinals.  Even if you don’t follow tennis, you probably know now that Novak Djokovic won the U. S. Open and since you know how tournaments work, you know that he also won his semifinal match.  I am not in mourning because Djokovic beat my man Roger Federer in the semifinals.  I am in mourning because Federer had him at match point on his own serve with two chances to end Djokovic’s run and didn’t do it.  Ah well.  You have to give it to the people who run the tournament.  The semifinal matches featured the first seed (Djokovic) against the third seed (Federer) and the second seed (Nadal) against the fourth seed (Murray).  You can’t run a tournament any better than that.

For the purpose of tracking the Erikson developmental stages, Federer’s loss serves as well as a win would have.  Round 6 of the tournament matches up to Stage 7 or Erikson’s scheme.  In that stage, each of us encounters the good tendency (syntonic) and the bad tendency (dystonic) of that stage.  As always, the best outcome is for the good tendency to prevail, but, as always, only after having to cope with the resistance put up by the bad tendency.  Here’s what that looks like for Stage 7.

Maladaptive Syntonic value Dystonic value Malignant
Overextension Generativity Stagnation Rejectivity


 So what do those mean?  We have come a long way to reach generativity.  This emphasis takes for granted a lifetime of hard work and intimate relations.  It is the achievements in those areas that need now to be cared for.  I have been a teacher and a father since I was 22 years old.  I have students and grandstudents and great-grandstudents and more.  I have children and grandchildren.  The grandchildren are great, but they are not great-grandchildren.  The work of my productive life has been accomplished.  I need now to care for it and for them.  That is the work of generativity.  Notice how outgoing it is.  Think of the watershed pictured here.

Stagnation is not outgoing.  As a modifying effect on generativity, it has the effect of keeping the schedule manageable, of keeping time to nurture the self and the marriage and the close friends.  Those are all good.  As a value of its own, it represents only withdrawal from the work of one’s life.[1]  There are other things to call it, of course.  The later phases of this stage have been called “the golden years,” meaning that at last you can indulge the level of self-absorption your working life prevented.  You can do everything you have always loved to do.  And when you are tired of it, you get to do more because that is really all there is.  That is the point where you discover that self-oriented “leisure activities” were seasonings, like salt.  They had a wonderful effect on the activities and commitments you seasoned with such activities.  This is the time you realize that a diet of salt or dill or oregano really isn’t that satisfying.[2]

The extremes are, as always, distasteful.  An unrelieved generativity slides into overextension.  We all know people who, in their retirement, volunteer at a place that leaves them distraught and exhausted.  Not enough “stagnation,” to use Erikson’s term.  Not enough attention to the quality of generativity, I would say, rather than to the raw quantity of it.  And unrelieved stagnation is not inert.  It is an active rejection of the involvements that would give meaning and structure to your life.  Hollywood has made a great deal of money over the years, telling the story of an old codger who withdrew from all meaningful work and all meaningful relationships, rejecting the attempts of even the most diehard friends to re-engage them, until finally a Q falls into their lives.  Q is a puppy or a grandchild or a long alienated son or daughter or a once-important cause that calls one back to action.  Lots of kinds of Q.  It’s all the same story.  But when Q fails, the Eriksonian rejectivity is the ruling force.

The name Erikson gives to the appropriate outcome of the necessary conflict between generativity and stagnation is CARE.  “Caring,” he means, I think.  This caring overcomes the rejection of one’s own progeny, whether biological or pedagogical.  Being a teacher, I see my “progeny” as both my children (and their children) and my students (and their students).  Or, as I say it when I have only myself to please: “my progeny, both genetic and memetic.”[3]

Beginning, in your retirement, to exercise some care for the watershed where you live is a good idea, but it isn’t generativity.  Generativity is continuing to care.  It took a long time to build the coalition—I’m not presuming you are the one who built it, only that you were involved in it—and to set in place the expectation that the watershed deserves deliberate care, and more time to engage the relevant regulatory majorities at city, county, and state levels, and even more time to establish the budget line.  NOW my care for the watershed is generative.

It took a long time to establish close trusting adult relationships with my children—or, depending on whose life is being described, my grandchildren or my stepchildren or whatever—but that is now accomplished.  Now I oversee their lives with satisfaction, but from a distance.  I answer the questions they still want to ask me as well as I can, but there is great satisfaction that those questions reaffirm the relationship.  I ask more questions than I am asked, because I am a known quantity and questions that might be jarring from someone who was not trusted are not jarring from me.  Generativity is continuing to serve as I am able, but much more to celebrate the work of others, whose lives were once under my active care.

It took a long time for my students who became teachers to confront the dilemmas I confronted with them.  But when they did confront them, some of them came to think that I might be able to help and we became colleagues.  I know that examples that have been a part of my teaching for years—how do you understand a classroom for 100 students which has only 20 chairs?—have been told and told and told as generations a students have gone to school and graduated.  That is not, as some say, “a form of immortality,” but it actually is my present care that the example be well used.  It is a part of my generativity.

The one thing that remains to be said yet is that all three of these examples—who are not me, but they are flavored by my recollections—reject stagnation.  Stagnation is refusing to care any longer.  It is daytime soaps or endless golf or fanatical sports attachments or whatever you default to when you give up caring urgently for the life that goes on outside your domain and that will keep right on going when you die.

Actually, we come to the dying next.  The last of the Erikson stages looks right down the barrel of that event and we will see, in the next post, what he sees.


[1] We will see in Stage 8 that the dystonic value is “despair.”  Of course it is.  That follows directly from the withdrawal of the meaning of one’s life that is represented by “stagnation” in Stage 7.

[2] It confuses, my brother Karl taught me to say, the aliment and the condiment.  Everyone knows what condiments are; aliments are what you put them on.

[3] Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” as the cultural counterpart of “gene.”  It is based on the Greek mīnēma, “something imitated.”  My students who are teaching the things I taught them or teaching in the way I modeled for them are my memetic “children,” and I owe them my generativity as well.  They are the children of my mind and my heart as my biological children are the children of my body (and my mind and my heart).

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. 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 whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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