Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory of human development has often been criticized as we learn more about the wide variations in human development. It is one of the first theories I learned as a social worker, and while it—like all theory—has flaws and is not totally universal, it also has been useful to me. I have been thinking a lot about developmental stages of late. The final stage Erikson discussed was 65+, Ego Integrity vs. Despair. Essentially, ego integrity is acceptance of the life one has lived and that it enables us to feel whole, complete, and satisfied. If not, and having seen our lives as unsuccessful in the sense we thought it should be, feel dissatisfied, leading to despair. Despair = loss of hope. Hope is the ego quality of the first stage of development: Trust vs. mistrust. If our needs are met, we develop a sense of trust that the world is a safe place and we will be okay. Hope is the quality that enables us to persevere, even in the face of failure or loss.
It is not that one at this stage of life has only the option of ego integrity or despair, but that like all of life, it is a balance, sometimes perhaps skewed in one direction and at other times going the opposite way. We are never completely all one thing or nothing. Erikson described his theory as “a tool to think with rather than a factual analysis” (Erikson, 1964 as cited in McLeod, 2018).
The stage just prior to Ego Integrity vs. Despair is Generativity vs. Stagnation. I see these as intimately connected, and indeed, we know that stages of development are not linear, or steps that lead to the next level the same as climbing stairs. We might get on and off a step, perhaps hang out on a landing for a bit as it were.
This year I decided to make Christmas cards. At first, I only sent a couple to my long-time friend, and in the first one, noted that “Yes, I am still pretending to be an artist.” On the next one, I signed it “Mississippi Artist-in-Residence.” Then I started making them and sending them to all my friends. Christmas is over, and I am still making cards for Happy New Year notes.
I cannot see myself ever becoming stuck in stagnation. There is far too much that interests me, challenges me, and the generally present desire to make a difference and matter—to leave things better and to nurture a world where we all feel supported and loved and safe. Sometimes that is due to my academic work, my practice of social work, and more so of late, my desire to create art in whatever way appeals to me. I am drawn to shape, color, texture. As I have continued, I find things that work for me and others that are just practice gone awry even with the best of intention and desire. It brings me joy either way as I continue to strive toward where ever it is that I am going with this. I am blessed to have this time in my life and I shall treasure it. I feel happy…and when times come that I am not, then I will feel that feeling, too, knowing as always that the balance is necessary and I can weather the storm.