Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
Just back from Itasca State Park, picking up Joseph after he finished an ornithology and ecology 5-week summer session. I stayed at Douglas Lodge, where I know some of you have stayed at various times: Mark for the journaling project and Paul for the Itasca Seminar. Perhaps others, too.
It is so close and yet so very distant—like the Boundary Waters/Quetico, Isle Royale (which I have not visited), the Iron Range, the North Shore, the Apostle Islands, the Lake Superior Circle Route, the Upper Peninsula, the Gogebic Range, the Porcupine Mountains, Sault Ste. Marie, the Pukawska National Park, the islands of northern Lake Superior, Wawa, Superior Provincial Park.
Closeness, for me, is, say a range of 6-8 hours by car. Distance is measured in differential from the local scene here in Andover, in the Twin Cities Metro Area. As I contemplate my trip to Southeast Asia and a January trip to Guatemala and Tikal, I find myself experiencing an odd contraction of my interest in travel to foreign lands, a contraction brought on in large part by growing appreciation for the unique and the strange closer to home.
This appreciation springs from knowing more and more about this area physically close to me yet so varied, especially, for me, sites to the north. I find I want to know more and more about the area to which we are indigenous—in an admittedly loose sense, but a nonetheless real one. I mean, here, that we all have to be from somewhere. I think that still holds true, though as I mentioned earlier there are some who see certain residents of large coastal cities as true global citizens, with loyalties to no one nation, and, I have to assume, therefore to no one place.
Even if there are a few such persons in the billions of earth’s current residents, their number is small. The rest of us can answer the question, “Where are you from?” We might have more than one answer, if, like me, you were born in one state (Oklahoma), raised in another (Indiana), and took adult residence in yet another (Minnesota). Or, you may have moved around with mobile parents, still, most of us have a spot we now call home.
Most of you reading this will answer Minnesota, though perhaps a South Dakota might sneak in, or maybe Sikkim or St. Petersburg. (if the Woolly clan International and fellow-travelers were included.). As such most of us are Midwesterners. We are an American type looked down on by bi-coastal transnationals, literally, since they call us the fly-over.
Skipping around a lot right now. A function of being gone for a couple of days and Kate’s experience with the E.R. today. She woke up with chest pains, not gone from the day before, and she decided she needed to be seen. This is a big deal; it’s an even bigger deal to go to the E.R.
After a series of tests given by people in different colored jump suits: teal, mint green, maroon, and, of course, blue, the EKG was normal, her blood chemistry’s were negative for heart attack sign, the chest x-ray was “non-diagnostic,” the CT scan ruled out an embolism, but couldn’t explain the pain.
“This is,” the young, red-haired ER doc said, “atypical chest pain.”
So, Kate’s in the hospital tonight awaiting a stress-echo to look for signs of cardio-vascular disease and heart-valve function, especially the often compromised left-ventricle.
Thanks to fifteen years of marriage to a physician, a better handle on my anxiety, and, of course, Zoloft, I am not a basket case. I find a lower anxiety level helps manage the whole hospital, test, institutionalization process: them telling me whether I can see my own wife, them telling me I can’t bring her food, them telling me my visit should be brief. As you can tell, I have many flash-points when dealing with institutions and rigidity, it makes me more than a little nuts.
I also understand the heart disease scenarios better. Mercy has an excellent heart center, so I feel confident about the medical care she’s receiving. She feels silly, sure it will be “nothing.” I’m not so sure, but we’ll find out tomorrow.
(I started with this, but it felt too heady at the time. Now it feels more appropriate.) Generativity. I’ve found developmental psychology interesting for a long time, looking up my age and stage, measuring where I saw myself against, say Erickson or Maslow. Like any good non-objective exercise I always found myself doing better than I’d thought, a curious blend of self-affirmation and self-denigration all in one move.
Here’s a quick summary of Erickson in case you forgot:
7: Middle Adulthood -- Age 40 to 65
Generativity vs. Stagnation
Another take on Stage 7: Erikson refers to generativity as an adult's ability to look outside oneself and care for others. It is a concern for the next generation(s). Generativity is an extension of love (from Stage 6) into the future, but this love is far more mature and unselfish during Stage 7. During Stage 6, intimacy had to be reciprocated. Generativity is a love that is greater than that; it is a love that is given regardless of whether it is reciprocated.
Stagnation is the exact opposite. It is caring for no-one and being self-absorbed.
If a favorable balance is achieved during this stage, then the virtue care is developed. According to Erikson, "A person does best at this time to put aside thoughts of death and balance its certainty with the only happiness that is lasting: to increase, by whatever is yours to give, the good will and higher order in your sector of the world" (Erikson, 1974).
8: Late Adulthood -- Age 65 to death
Integrity vs. Despair Important
Another take on Stage 8: This stage of older adulthood begins about the time of retirement and continues throughout one's life. Reaching this stage is a sign of maturity while failing to reach this stage is an indication of poor development in prior stages through the life course.
The most important event at this stage is achieving ego integrity. That means coming to accept one's whole life and reflecting on it in a positive manner. According to Erikson, achieving a sense of integrity means fully accepting oneself and coming to terms with death. Accepting responsibility for your life and being able to undo the past and achieve satisfaction with one's "self" is essential. The inability to do this results in a feeling of despair and this individual will begin to fear death.
If a favorable balance is achieved during this stage, then the virtue wisdom is developed.
Other sites suggest different age spans, 40 to mid-50’s for Stage 7, for example. Whether or not you agree with developmental psychology, or Erickson’s scheme in particular, I imagine you can find in these summary statements important tasks on which you’ve worked in the recent past.
I mention them this week because I spent the time up at Itasca with Joseph, now Kate in the E.R., and I had the opportunity Sunday at Simpson’s to have more time with Gyatsho. I find generativity a good term to describe the overall sense of caring, not only for children, but for friends, spouse, family, and plants and pets, too.
It is also covers, for me at least, the creative process, along the line of a quote I’ve used before Yeats: “Creativity is the social act of a solitary person.”
For myself, and for many others, too, I’d press the timeline for generativity back to late 20’s/early 30’s. The decision to have children is a sine qua non for what Erickson defines as generativity and many, if not most of us, now make that decision in that time frame. It used to be much earlier of course, but several factors have pushed birth/adoption and raising a family into later years: women in the workforce, contraception, more years in school, the increasing comfort with no children at all.
Where do you see yourself in this generativity/stagnation dialectic? It is not a matter of becoming all generative with no self-focus, for Erickson, a balance between poles represents the appropriate resolution of dialectical tension, a Jungian might start to talk about transcendent functions here: a state of being, as I remarked in an earlier piece, that includes both sides of the dialectic in a third state. So, here, in the dialectic between self and others, the notion is not to extinguish self, but to develop the Ericksonian virtue of caring. Then, you can care for yourself and others, or, said another way, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
The Woolly’s provide an important mirror and vessel for each of us as we tackle the inevitable challenges created by our age and the stages of others in our lives.
Stage 8 brings the challenge of ultimate self-acceptance. This self-acceptance entails (the strongest link in any symbolic logic system) reviewing one’s whole life, warts and all, and pronouncing it ok. Without this life review and a conscious embrace of yourself, the you that lived all those events, Erickson believes you cannot face death, and will, therefore, fall into despair.
As I reflect on this idea, I can see the value in going back over my life and taking polio, breaking the insurance agent’s window with my slingshot, good academics, poker, alcohol, drugs, sex, rock and roll, Joseph, three wives, ministry, writing, gardening, shame and joy, travel, depression and elation, good self-care and poor and owning it all, saying to my own life, yes. It was that way and, in as much I had influence over it, it was that way because of choices I made. Not only that though, I can look back at the child, boy, and man who made those decisions and offer him the same compassion and understanding I would to a friend, or, for that matter, a stranger. In other words, I extend to my former selves the same kind of love I have for each of you who read this.
It is not hard to see, if this task is authentically engaged, how death could come, not as enemy to a life unfinished, but as the end of a life well lived. I think I mentioned last time that Gyatsho says a core Tantric belief is that the last thoughts upon dying are key to the next reincarnation: positive, graceful thoughts yield reincarnation in a vehicle advanced over your last one, negative ones and you end up a cock-a-roach, or something worse, say, a Republican. (ok Charlie H., for you, I add, or...a Democrat.)
Here’s the final thought on this topic. No matter what our pilgrimage today, or our pilgrimages of yesterday, they have but one true purpose and that is preparation for this last path. In each day, during each pilgrimage, we develop the person and the impact of that person whose life we must come, one day, to accept, or to end in despair.
Given the bleak view of human nature espoused by most Christian theologies, it is no wonder the doctrine of grace became so important. If, no matter how hard you try, you wind up near the end saddled with all the lust in your heart, all the sins of omission, all the ritual miscues and the sins of pride, sloth, avarice, gluttony and all the others weighted on your soul like heavy pyramids against the feather of your volitional positives—well, a last ditch break from the Almighty, or Amida Buddha who will come from the clouds for your soul if you only say Amida Buddha save me is necessary. Otherwise, this last, critical stage of our development must end, as Erickson points out, in despair, for how, knowing our sinful past, could we accept ourselves?
What’s the alternative? As I see it, the alternative is this. 1. Recognize the impact and necessity of personal choice as you move through life. 2. Try to choose lovingly for yourself and for others and for the world. 3. Accept our limitations as creatures bounded by the flesh, birth, and a zeitgeist into which we are born without choice. 4. In light of 3, allow yourself latitude with regard to 1. and 2.
Then, at stage 8, or 20, or 40 you will always be able to look at yourself and say, “Oh, I’ve done as well as was possible. I’ve not been perfect, how could I have been, but I’ve done what I could when I had the chance.” And, I gotta say, from my perspective, this qualifies for “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Come to think of it, I can put this also in the light of a very influential (on me) NPR special I heard on good-enough parenting. It stated what could be obvious, but often isn’t, we don’t have to be, in fact, cannot be, perfect parents, so, we should try to be good-enough parents. I find this idea very liberating and have applied it to gardening; I consider myself a good-enough gardener, cooking, cleaning, husband, friend—so on.
Here I see I’ve extended it to the good-enough life. Well, what else can you expect? Really.
This is, we might say, the Big Pilgrimage: the BP.
The Buddhists and the Hindus believe the Big Pilgrimage is really, the Big Pilgrimages...well, maybe so, but even if they’re right, we’re still stuck with the good-enough life, or gifted with it, as I’m inclined to think in each turn of the Kharmic Wheel.
Though I don’t want to sign up with the flinty-eyed, brush-cut humanists, flat-earth humanists, as we UU’s like to call them, I do want to go with them in their emphasis on living this life, the one we have now, as if it were the only one we were gonna get and as if the probability of outside help is pretty damn low.
I don’t want to sign up with them for a whole number of reasons, the chief being I hang onto the outside, supernatural, spiritual realm as a real deal, but one I know very little about. I want it to be true; they want it to not be true, neither of us can back up our wannabes with empirical data, so you have to choose. And I choose a world with divinity, sacredness, spirits, maybe even reincarnation—Gyatsho forces me to reconsider this, not because of what he says, but because of what he is.
A while back I identified myself as a pagan, a neo-romantic, but I didn’t add theist (polytheist/monotheist on alternate Sundays) and mystic, a devotee of Pan and Sophia and Kali.
I have to go
get Kate now, so I’m going to sign off for this week.
The view from the trail (I misspelled it trial, and thought,
hmmm.) this week has had a lot family inflections, and I celebrate them
as the life that happens, not the life I plan.