Integrity vs. Despair

One of the great classics in psychology is Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Published in the late 1950’s the theory has been an important contributor to the understanding of education and psychology for my entire career. I still refer to the book from time to time for its perspectives. Of course we continue to learn and books produced in the 1950’s and 1960’s are not the final word on any topic. One of the basic problems with developmental theory is the simple fact that it is not prescriptive. Not everyone goes through the stages at the same age or in the same order. And the stages themselves are meant to describe certain observations, not to provide a roadmap for growth. I have had more than a few conversations with colleagues who use the fact that Erikson used two poles to describe each stage of development as a kind of “pass fail” for human development. It doesn’t work that way. Rather than a conflict, each stage presents a balance.

Erikson’s first stage of development is titled “Trust vs. Mistrust.” Infants and children, however, don’t experience that spectrum as a completion or an “either or.” Rather they move on that spectrum, sometimes feeling complete trust and other times experiencing mistrust. If an infant were to never be allowed to experience any mistrust, that person wouldn’t be able to develop autonomy in the next stage of development.

So Erikson’s theory is not complete, nor is it the only way to think of human development. It is, nonetheless a very helpful tool in further developing educational throes and strategies as well as understanding the journey through life. I have kept returning to Erikson over and over throughout my career.

The eighth and final stage of development in Erikson’s theory is “Integrity vs. Despair.” I found myself thinking about that yesterday as I continued the process of emptying out the office I have occupied for a quarter of a century. It wasn’t the book that got me to thinking. I picked out my Erickson months ago and took it home to be among the books that will move with me to a new place out of boxes and boxes of books that will be passed on to others. Rather, I was simply thinking of the process. Sorting out an office at the end of a career is very much the process of continuing psychosocial development.

At the time, Erikson stood out among developmental theorists simply because he wrote about development continuing for the entire life cycle as opposed to many other developmental theorist who focused only on childhood events. The concept that aging is a part of human development was novel and challenging at the time he wrote his book. Having passed the 65 year mark myself, it makes perfect sense from my point of view.

Erikson posits that each stage of development involves a crisis that acts as a turning point. If one successfully resolves the crisis, that person develops a virtue that contributes to overall well-being. The crisis for aging adults comes with the awareness of our mortality. The awareness of mortality can come through retirement, loss of a spouse, loss of friends, facing a terminal illness or other major life changes. In my own case, my wife experiencing a life threatening drug reaction in the same year as we are planning our retirement from this job has put me squarely in Erikson’s “integrity vs. Despair” camp. There are times when I seek to deny the reality. After all, my wife has made a full recovery and is once again healthy and I keep telling myself and others that I’m not retiring and that I plan to continue working as soon as we get relocated. But the truth is that I no longer have a hot resume. I may have certain skills, but I’m not the most desirable candidate for the kinds of job that I’m trained to do. And none of us will live forever. As long and as wonderful as our marriage has been, it is a simple fact that we will oneway die and it is most likely that one will die before the other.

Erikson says that looking back is an important part of facing this crisis. My developmental task involves reflecting on the life I have lived and examining it. Do I consider mine a life well lived or do I have an overwhelming sense of regret and despair over mistakes made? Of course it is not an “either/or” situation, but rather a balance. When I look back I have fulfillment and regrets. I see successes and failures.

One of the things that Erikson doesn’t discuss is the sense of releasing some life tasks as things that won’t be accomplished. As I clean out my office, I keep discovering projects that we might have pursued that now will not be done on my watch. There are so many other things we could have done. Despite the fact that our ministry was full and busy and we did a lot of things, we had a lot more ideas than could be accomplished in the time we had. I have complete sets of curricula for courses that we did not teach. I have resources for projects that never got off the ground. I have files of notes about possibilities that have not come to fruition. Just in order to move out of my office and leave it in a condition for my successor, I need to get rid of some of those objects.

Of course there are some things I will leave behind. The next person to occupy my office will have to decide whether the past 26 annual reports are worth keeping or should be discarded. I’m also leaving behind a collection of bibles and a collection of hymnals. I found the old books to be rich resources for my ministry, but it is entirely possible that the next person to occupy my office will turn exclusively to the Internet and see no need to keep dusty old hymnals around.

My goal is to continue to seek balance between integrity and despair as I sift and sort through the collections of my life. The timing is good for me, but there is much work that remains.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!