The Idea Whose Time Has Come
There is a word that puts a finger on a dilemma that individuals and society at large increasingly experience in their lives. A woman, 35, told me about her life as a business consultant, in particular about sitting in a motel at the end of a grueling day and asking herself why her clients were paying $275 an hour for her services -- and why she was prostituting herself to provide them. She had been thinking about all the bits and pieces of her life -- about the pet she had just lost, about the children she never had, about her husband telling her to quit, about the one time in a previous job when she actually saw her efforts make a difference in people's lives. But now...what was the lasting value in all this? Did it matter to anyone? Who cared? She didn't use the word, but there was a void in her "generativity."
A man of 64 spoke of a similar unhappiness that had afflicted him some ten years before. He hadn't heard of the word "generativity" either. He had worked as a journalist in his young adult years but then took a job with a public utility company at the age of 43 because he wanted more security for his family. He began writing and editing for the company's news and information service, developing stories about ordinary workers who sometimes took heroic risks, or about small, out-of-the way communities his company served. He loved being a kind of Charles Kuralt "on the road." But then in his mid-50s he realized how unhappy he was becoming. The company had shifted emphasis, wanting hard facts now, not soft "people" stories. He found himself working on briefing books that didn't reflect him. "Anybody could do what I was doing." In a cost-cutting move, the company offered early retirement. He didn't accept it the first time around, nor the second, but he did the third. He parted from the company at age 59, and the separation had a lot to do with his "generativity."
You can tell that generativity -- this feeling of mattering, of creating lasting value, of passing your very self on to others -- was at the heart of these dilemmas because of what followed. Within a year the business consultant had quit her job, adopted two puppies, sought medical help to become pregnant, and begun to put together plans for her own consulting firm. "I wanted to create something that would have a life and an identity outside of me," she said -- something authentic. Upon his retirement, the former journalist answered an ad for child care help. He became a substitute grandfather for two young boys, then for a 10-year-old with severe cerebral palsy, then an 11-year-old who was the son of a lesbian couple. Ever the writer, he took notes on his workdays to give to the parents of the children and then got the idea of collecting them into a book, a kind of daily log of fatherly fun and wisdom. He published the book himself and followed it with a book of letters to his own adult sons. This writing was worlds apart from what he had ended up doing for the utility company. It was warm, emotional, and full of people. "Boys, I wish you could have seen me when I ran like a gust of wind, and I wish all sons could see their dads when they could steal a base, catch a long pass, or win a race."
The word "generativity" has been in existence for half a century now, coined in 1950 by the eminent psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson. But the world was not ready to hear it back then, though it eagerly embraced other concepts of Professor Erikson, most notably that of the identity crisis. Erikson defined generativity as "the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation," but the idea is both deeper and richer than that. It revolves around the fact that we are reproductive beings who wish to be fertile, who have been told in sacred scriptures and urged by our very genes to multiply and fill the earth. But as humans we do that in more than a physical sense. We do it with our craft and our care, with our hands and our genius. We do it as parents, teachers, shepherds, guardians, and guides; as artists and scientists and enactors of ritual; as responsible citizens and movers in our businesses and communities. We do it when we bear fruit, sow seeds, create legacies, leave the world a little better off for our presence in it.
A quarter of a century, after Erikson, in 1975, I began to write about the reverse of generativity, about the sterility that had crept into notions of self-actualization and self-fulfillment. Of immense influence, these psychologies held up as a goal of development a self that was focused on the here-and-now, skilled at severing old connections and moving on to new ones, "liberated" from tradition, unencumbered by duty, "open," and "fluid"; those were the very virtues preached. But it was a self that lacked any instinct to beget and had hardly a provision for caring for what it might beget. (I wasn't alone in my critique: at the time, the so-called "Me Decade" and "narcissist society" were coming increasingly under attack.) There was a practical side to my thinking as well: self-actualization wouldn't get anyone past the age of 50. Why put so much effort into actualizing something that was going to die anyway? I thought. If I was going to end up dead, I didn't want to be a dead end.
I went on to write a book, Outliving the Self, that profiled eight individuals whose lives revealed facets of generativity, and followed it up with occasional articles in scholarly journals. Quantified research on generativity began to appear. But the idea that could lead from Me to beyond Me had not yet captured the public imagination. Now, at the end of the century, the climate appears to be changing. Perhaps it's because seventy-six million members of America's baby-boom generation are entering the second half of their lives. Born between 1946 and 1964, they form a huge population bulge that continues to work its way through the stages of life, changing American culture as it goes. In the late 1960s, the leading edge of the baby boom went to war and protested the war; in the 1970s, it both accepted and criticized Meism. Now the bulk of this massive cohort is reaching middle age, a time in life when people normally become aware of their mortality and sense the possibilities offered by generativity. The baby boom, in other words, may now be ready to hear.
Ready or not, the baby boomers -- and indeed all of us -- need to hear. For the boomers will soon accelerate a trend that is deeper, of longer duration, and global in nature -- the aging of populations all around the world. In 1900, only one out of every twenty-five Americans was 65 or older. Today, one out of eight or nine is that old; and by 2030, when the last of the boomers has crossed 65, one out of five will be. And there are countries -- Japan, Sweden, Canada, Italy, for example -- where populations are even older than they are in the United States. In 1994, one of them -- Italy -- became the first in the world to have more people over 65 than under 15.
These figures describe what is known as the "Age Wave," and as it hits nations around the world, it will raise the question: where shall our resources go? To the old, whose political power will only increase, or to the young? The old, not the young, will decide. How seventy-six million baby boomers decide in the United States will have far-reaching effects. There could be a healthy generational flow in the century to come, but there could also be generational war.
And so I return now to the subject of generativity with a greater sense of urgency, a sense of mission almost, wanting to be -- at one and the same time -- both more idealistic and more practical. My goal in this book is to take what I have learned over the past two decades and cast it in the ancient metaphor of the Way. I want to show you a path to an interior state of great value not only to yourself, but also to your family, your neighborhood, your nation, and your very world. A state of great joy, too, for in it one draws on the deepest wellsprings of life.
In describing this inner journey, I augment the metaphor of the Way with a more contemporary one, that of steps. I have picked out eight of them, and they form the heart of this book. These are not "self-help" steps; they are not terribly distinct; and their sequence can vary somewhat. But they do bring out certain aspects, certain phases even, of the generative process. They are markers. You can see a particular episode of your life in terms of them, or your life as a whole. You can go through them -- travel the Way -- more than once. And though I call them steps, they do not always involve an active doing. Often on the road I describe there are moments of standing still as well as walking, of being passive as well as active, of receiving as well as giving. We do not always dictate the terms of our generativity, in other words. Sometimes we have to let those terms come to us.
The eight steps on the Way -- talking to your past, stopping the damage, finding a voice of your own, blending that voice with another's, creating, selecting, letting go, and responding to outcome -- are mapped out in Chapters 3 to 8 of this book (Part II). The map is preceded by two brief chapters that comprise Part I; their goal is to provide conceptual clarity regarding generativity. The map is followed by four chapters of reflections (Part III). They look at generativity in relation to the adult life span, to the problem of evil, and to the broad progression of life on earth. The last of the reflections is a parable that summarizes the message of the book.
Let me say at the outset that it will take some fresh seeing if we are to follow this "Generative Way," or even discover where it begins. We -- psychologists and lay persons alike -- will have to become aware of the sterility and fertility in lives and of their reflexive impact on lives. We will have to name dilemmas of generativity for what they are. There are times when these dilemmas stare us in the face, and we cannot miss their true nature. A woman unable to conceive after two miscarriages, a woman who suffered tremendous losses in her early twenties, writes at her lowest point that she feels "less like a woman than like a useless, empty womb....My whole life is a miscarriage, an abortion, dead before birth." Another woman who lost her only son in his teens, a woman for whom family was everything, says, "Now, I'm just a cut-off branch of a very large tree." And a man, living in very different circumstances, fathers five children who live but sees his existence in the same cut-off way: "My life has been so sterile, so useless, so unhappy, that, por Dios, sometimes I wish I could die," he tells Oscar Lewis in The Children of Sanchez. "I am the kind of guy who leaves nothing behind, no trace of themselves in the world, like a worm dragging itself across the earth. I bring no good to anybody." These individuals articulate suffering that is easy to see and name: something is deeply wrong with their fertility.
But we may not so readily identify the assault on generativity in a young computer scientist who pours himself into the creation of a new piece of software only to see his company destroy 90 percent of it -- and, so it seems, of him. Or in a middle-aged man whose great idea, whose "baby," never gets off the ground. Or in a minister who sees each new congregation to which he is assigned slowly but inexorably grow smaller. Or in any worker, blue-collar or white, who cannot wait to retire from a job. It will take a fresh approach on the part of counselors, on the part of any of us concerned with lives, simply to recognize the generative dimension of a person's presenting "symptoms," to relate these symptoms not just to what has gone into a life but to what is (or is not) coming forth from it, and to consider no therapy complete until the entire flow of life is restored, including its flow into a generative outlet.
The path opened up by this kind of seeing is not an easy one. There are twists and turns and hidden dangers along the way to generativity, and difficulties from the very beginning. At the start we must come to terms with what we have been given by previous generations: how do we deal with what has been sown in us? If it has been crippling, how do we prevent it from making us sterile or jading our perspective? Then we must find a voice, our voice, and blend it with another's. Not an easy proposition. Add the uncertainty of the future: what acts of faith will be required to produce things that will one day escape our control, whose ultimate fate we will never know? How do we surrender our children and our products to a world that seems more threatening every day? What inner temptations -- to fear, to pride, to negligence, to selfishness -- must we overcome throughout the time of begetting and selecting and letting go? Suppose our children do not "turn out" -- or never stop draining us. Suppose posterity wants nothing of the products of our hands. Suppose our gift is squandered, misappropriated, put to wrong purposes, or put to fight purposes that are not our own. And what about the evil we inevitably sow with the good?
Throughout this book I will treat generativity as a virtue, but I will not neglect its "dark side." One of the most poignant sentences I've ever heard consisted of just five words: "It was all from me." The speaker was referring to a baby, her first, who was neither healthy nor attractive, and who eventually died. Her words expressed her profound feeling of producing something that was damaged. "It was as if my husband had not contributed at all to the appearance of this child," she said. "It was all from me." In 1995, a former secretary of defense for the United States looked back on a deadly and divisive war that he had helped to wage some twenty-five years before and realized that it too (though not all of it) emanated from him. His feelings must have been akin to those of a fashioner of the atomic bomb, who witnessed its first explosion and quoted the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." These individuals understood that evil could result from their best efforts and live after them. But others remain blind, unaware of the poison they spread and the lasting damage they do.
So there are dangers and corruptions as well as joys and blessings that line the way of one who would be generative. To illuminate them I will draw upon my own discipline of psychology, where interest in generativity is growing at last, but I will also go far beyond it to consult the witness of history and literature, as well as that of ordinary people who have lived through a variety of generative experiences. I will mix in teaching stories, or what I regard as such, extracting from them the wisdom that has accumulated in their characters and plots. The stories will range from fairy tales for adults to the parables of the world's religions. The latter is an especially intriguing prospect, for psychology and religion tend to pick up opposite ends of the stick when it comes to human lives. Psychology emphasizes what goes into them (childhood experiences); and religion, what comes out of them (their fruits). There are many issues that psychology and religion can address in tandem, but none is more important than the subject of this book -- our attitude toward future generations and the future of the world.
It is my conviction that what takes place in the inner life of adults of all ages -- the young, the middle-aged, and the elderly -- has a significant bearing on the generation now coming into being and on the whole progression of life on this planet. Speaking of sexual intercourse, Mahatma Gandhi once said, "The physical and mental states of the parents at the time of conception are reproduced in the baby." One need not take his statement literally to realize its symbolic value: if we in the older generation wish to develop virtue in the young, we must first develop corresponding virtue in ourselves. This is evident in the lives of our great spiritual teachers, who went to a place apart and faced temptation before going forth to spread their message.
Deep satisfaction can come when a life is lived with generativity in mind -- a sure knowledge that one's life has "counted." A man approaching 70 visits a public park and lake he helped to create years before as a state legislator. Once it had been a place of abandoned oil wells and strip mines, but now it was a place where generations to come could "go to dream -- one of the best fishing lakes in western Pennsylvania." "I was only a little cog in the wheel that made it possible," he says; "but I appreciate the part I was able to play."
A famous worker of wood, 82, speaks of giving trees that will die a "second life": "If I can bring the nature and the spirit of a tree back, the tree lives again." He, too, is but one cog in a great wheel, one element in the continuity of life that "sparks," he says, from one thing to another. "It's a great, great feeling to be part of that -- to be a part of nature and to be a part of life itself."
And a 90-year-old arthritic woman reflects in Robert Coles's The Old Ones of New Mexico: "I am rich with years, a millionaire! I have been part of my own generation, then I watched my children's generation grow up, then my grandchildren's, and now my great-grandchildren's. Two of my great-grandchildren are becoming full-grown women now; they come visit me, and will remember me. Now, I ask you, how much more can a woman expect?" She was another who had never heard of the word "generativity," but then she had never needed to.
Copyright © 1999 by John Kotre