Tag Archives: legacy

What “Ego Integrity” Looks Like

Erik Erikson

You have probably encountered Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, in which he posits eight epigenetic stages.  In each stage a developmental crisis must be positively resolved for optimal further growth to occur.  The final crisis occurs in late life, in which a person faces mortality and examines his or her life.  This life review can result in either ego integrity, a sense of appreciation for one’s life as lived, or in despair, a sense of regret and disappointment over the outcomes of one’s life.

In teaching adult development, I’ve found it much easier to convey the experience of despair.  Students seem to understand that a person could look back over her lifetime and conclude that she had not accomplished enough, had made bad choices, or harmed others unnecessarily.  Getting across the experience of ego integrity has been less successful.  Feeling a sense of satisfaction seems a pale accomplishment in contrast to the wrenching feeling of despair.  Then I read a brief essay in the New York Times online edition by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks

Among other writings, Dr. Sacks has written numerous very readable books about how people experience and adapt to unusual neurological phenomena and pathologies.  He is 81 and describes himself as robust.  However, he recently learned that he has metastatic and terminal cancer from a rare tumor he’d thought had been cured nine years ago.  The article, entitled, “My Own Life”, contains what I consider an eloquent representation of ego integrity.  It contains  a deeply genuine expression of expansiveness, individuality, and aliveness in the face of impending death.  He ends his essay with this observation, “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

I urge you to read his moving essay.  To me it contains inspiration that each of us may reach the end of our lives  with a measure of authenticity, clarity, and gratitude.  It also conveys a sense of celebration of a life well-lived.  That’s the kind of ego integrity I hope to accomplish and wish for all of us!

Sue Sweeney, Chair, Department of Aging Studies, Madonna University

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Spiritual Advantages of Later Life

ClockSpiralBelow is the link to an expanded version of the PowerPoint presentation I used in an interactive discussion with a church group about spiritual growth in older age.  It seems to me that there are certain inevitabilities about aging that transcend societies and cultures: a shortening of time perspective, the accumulated lifetime experience, and eventual physical decline .  How we respond to these inevitabilities will be affected by our world view.  In our culture another inevitability makes the experience of aging more harrowing, and that is pervasive and unconscious ageism.

These inevitabilities invite us to undertake a number of developmental tasks to respond and adapt.  The tasks include self-esteem regulation, managing our foreshortened time span, coming to terms with decline, dealing with dependence, facing death, relating to unfinished business, and leaving a legacy.  Inherent in these challenges are opportunities for spiritual growth, which our limited time perspective calls for us to use.  We can learn to be more patient, to be less petty, to let go of old hurts and resentments, to fully appreciate the present moment, to take on social roles that befit us as elders with a lifetime of experience, to view ourselves as a part of a whole, and much more.  Our need for spiritual stamina increases as we age, as does our ability to share our hard-won spiritual achievements with others.

For each task, I have suggested some opportunities, some tools for exploring them, and ideas for sharing each person’s journey with others.  Finally, several resources are listed that can assist with a number of these challenges.

The Spiritual Advantages of Later LifeExpandedPub1–14

Sue Sweeney, Chair, Gerontology Department, Madonna University