Everyone’s life has meaning. It’s that thread of meaning that runs throughout their existence which becomes their life narrative.
Psychologist Erik Erikson calls this stage of life Generativity vs. Stagnation. He states that when people enter middle adulthood (40s through mid-60s), their social task is to find their life’s work and contribute to the development of others through activities such as volunteering, mentoring, and raising children. They also engage in meaningful and productive work which contributes positively to society. Those who do not master this task, may experience stagnation and feel as though they are not leaving a mark on the world in a meaningful way. We believe that the need for generativity extends well beyond the mid-60s! The power to create adds quality to one’s life.
Finding life’s purpose starts in childhood. Children show aptitude for special skills at a young age. In fact their narrative may result in them being labeled slow learner or special needs because they don’t fit into the “educational box” of being able to sit in a seat learning by listening to teachers lecture, or excelling on standardized tests. Talents such as music, drawing, and physical skills are not measured on standardized tests. It is certainly easy to find the root of low self-esteem when others determine your narrative, rather than creating space for it. Even the student who struggles with math, social studies, science and other subjects has a strong life narrative…it’s just not academia. It could be compassion or emotional intelligence.
Fast forward to when people have lived a robust lifetime doing exactly what they were suited for, then have to give it up. That can be just as demoralizing as the child who experiences low self-esteem for not fitting the educational mold. Whether through age, illness, forced retirement or other reasons, when people lose outlets for living their purpose and if they do not find a way to continue living their narrative, they can fall into Erikson’s stagnation. They lose connection with the world and have little interest in productivity and self-improvement. This can result in depression.
According to Erikson’s theory, people develop self-worth by contributing to society. Conversely society has a responsibility to return the gesture by helping people feel valued. How? Perhaps the best way is, by whenever possible, removing barriers that obstruct life’s narratives. For children this would mean creating opportunities for all to learn and express their talents and purpose rather than forcing one-size-fits all standards and measures of success. In later life this means removing retirement directives based on age. In some situations it is legitimate to require retirement based on physical prowess such as a professional athlete whose bodily agility can diminish with age. But for others whose work is not dependent on physical skills for instance doctors, teachers, entertainers, and others there should not be a preset finish line.
In a Veterans’ Day roundtable discussion, several vets including two SEALs and two others, one a Marine awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and another soldier who led 34 into battle against 300 enemy, discussed the difficulty of retiring from a life with a clear mission. The Lieutenant from the 10th Mountain Division made the point that even in retirement one needs to find a mission that is bigger than one’s self, another way of serving. By so doing, one never retires from their powerful life narrative, instead they live in their purpose and mission until that becomes their legacy!
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