Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review of Erik and Joan Erikson's "The Life Cycle Completed--Extended Version"

Erik Erikson can drive a person mad with his florid language and abstractions, and his antediluvian sexual stages are nearly nails in his coffin (lo-rest-his-so), but the man and his wife were a force of nature. He never finished his bachelor’s degree, but he knew what it meant to be human. Who does that? The sense kept washing over me that he was jumping ahead of empirical data and taking hold of a reality-in-itself that transcended his case studies. I can’t help thinking that, even when he was wrong, he was right. I personally think he’s bigger than psychology, perhaps fitting more the philosopher-sociologist type with his wide-sweeping anthropologic and reality-unifying theories.

His 8 stages are brilliant, but I think they are basically restatements of the pulse of human ‘becomings.’ The stages represent an opportunity for each person to ‘become more’ or ‘become less’ in the world.

•             Trust (becoming more) vs. Mistrust (becoming less)
•             Autonomy (more) vs. Shame (less)
•             Initiative (more) vs. Guilt (less)

You get the picture. Apparently Joan did too when she wrote, “I am persuaded that only by doing and making do we become.” Each stage either sees a person desiring to become larger with more involvement in the universe by confirming and building on the freedom and success from an earlier stage, or the person desires to withdraw and cover their wounds, to avoid becoming an inflated target and insulate themselves against the hostile environment that is slowly (or quickly) eroding their ego and sense of capability. As an aside, I was explaining this to my 8-year old daughter, and when I asked her what she thought would happen if an infant doesn’t trust its world and begins to withdraw, she answered, “They won’t learn!” This is true, and perfectly describes the stunted growth of a psyche that fears the world and its presence in it. Sartre and the existentialists would have had a few things to say about this, as their definitions of an inauthentic and dysfunctional human being relate closely to those who are attempting to escape from their essential freedom and suffering in the world (without success).

And I have to give a shout out to Joan Erikson (sup Joanie babe!!) for being willing to go back and modify the 8th stage based upon her first-hand account of it which neither she nor Erik could have augured from their 40-year-old-or-so perspectives when they wrote Life Cycle Completed. Like a boss—at 93 years old—she scrawled out a new definition to ‘wisdom’ and ‘integrity’, representing them not merely as virtues—wispy, spiritual attributes of the distanced-from-life—but as qualities of someone who is ‘in-touch’ with life and it’s meanings in a very intimate and mystical way. She kicked ass for old people the world over, and made her voice heard above the melee of the young, proud, and heedless. Joanie babe, if you weren’t dead and rotted, I’d kiss your un-rotted face for your bravery and un-rottedness!

Quotes From the Book:
Epigenesis—step by step growth and gradual differentiation of parts. In embryology as well as psychology, each organ or trait has its time of origin—a factor as important as the locus of the origin. If the eye, said Stockard, does not arise at the appointed time, “it will never be able to express itself fully, since the moment for the rapid outgrowth of some other part will have arrived.” If the organ misses its time of ascendance, it is not only doomed as an entity, it endangers at the same time the whole hierarchy of organs. The result of normal development, however, is proper relationship of size and function among all body organs. (summary with quote)
A sense of defeat [in early childhood]…can lead to deep shame and a compulsive doubt whether one will ever be able to feel that one willed what one did—or did what one willed. (37)
[Ritualization is a way of saying] ‘this is how we do things’…[and has] adaptive the social process...that must do for human adaptation what the instinctive fit into a section of nature will do for an animal species. (42)
[Parents are the first to] help evoke and to strengthen in the infant the sense of a primal other—the I’s counterpart. (44)
The mutual recognition between mother and infant may e a model of some of the most exalted encounters throughout life. (45)
I submit that this first and dimmest affirmation of the described polarity of the ‘I’ and ‘Other’ is basic to a human being’s ritual and esthetic needs for a pervasive quality which we call the numinous: the aura of a hallowed presence. The numinous assures us, ever again, of separateness transcended and yet also of distinctiveness confirmed, and thus of the very basis of a sense of ‘I’. (45)
Play is the infantile form of the human ability to deal with experience by creating model situations and to master reality by experiment and planning. (51)
[Adults, too, play] with past experience and anticipated tasks, beginning with that activity in the autosphere called thinking. (51)
Hope connotes the most basic quality of “I”-ness, without which life could not begin or meaningfully end. (62)
In old age a retrospective mythologizing…can amount to a pseudointegration as a defense against lurking despair. (65)
An immense power of verification [in mature adulthood] pervades this meeting of bodies [sex] and temperaments after the hazardously long human preadulthood. (70)
It seems that the stage of generativity, as long as a threatening sense of stagnation is kept at bay, is pervasively characterized by a supremely sanctioned disregard of death…Youth and old age, then, are the times that dream of rebirth, while adulthood is too busy taking care of actual births and is rewarded for it with a unique sense of boisterous and timeless historical reality—a sense which can seem somewhat unreal to the young and to the old, for it denies the shadow of nonbeing. (80)
The problem is such that so basic a sense of centrality [of the ego] depends for its renewal from stage to stage on an increasing number of others: some of them close enough to be individually acknowledged as an ‘other’ in some important segment of life, but for the most part a vague number of interrelated others who seek to confirm their sense of reality by sharing… (89)

I am persuaded that only by doing and making do we become. (Joan Erikson, 127)