Aging is an Evolution Into Human Wisdom

Agir;g is an evolution into human wisdom By Julia Gargiulo
Enk Erikson, one of America's most
renowned psychoanalysts, himself now
85 years ofage, has some profound things
to tell us about how to age gracefully ­
no small task in a culture as youth-ob­
sessed as ours. His eight stages of psycho­
logical life, culminating as they do in that
of "old age," is a primer for a life lived
with meaning and, ultimately, with wis­
dom. The meaning flows from the insight
that man is a creature in community, who
only truly knows himself in interraction
with others; and wisdom arrives when
one fully understands that at its deepest
levels. A brief look at the earliest stage in
Erikson's life cycle, that of infancy, .will
help us to better understand the last two
stages which relate to aging.
In the first stage of infancy, as in all the
eight stages, the growing organism is pre­
sented with a task or crisis which relates
to its particular strengths or weaknesses.
From birth to about 1'/2 years of age, the
infant takes the world in orally, as it were;
and obviously, it depends for its life on
the mothering figure who is caring for it.
Its strengths are its great powers of incor­
poration and its ability to absorb its en­
vironment; its weakness is its total
dependency. Depending on how the in­
fant is cared for - whether the care is
consistent, reliable, and loving - the in­
fant will come to develop an attitude of
hopefulness towards the world or, in the
case of erratic or withholding care, one of
withdrawal from the world.
These two attitudes are described by
Erikson as the first crisis a human en­
counters, that of "trust v. mistrust." No
infant emerges from the first crisis oftrust
or mistrust in an absolute way; rather, we
each emerge from the experience of the
first year and a half oflife with a particu­
lar mix of both.
Erikson's point is that the psychosex­
ual organism first studied and described
by Freud has an added component af­
fecting its growth which is best described
as psychosocial. The infant interracting
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with its caretaker (later its family, friends,
and society) is, for Erikson, a more fertile
ground for studying how the human
mind develops.
Similarly, in the seventh stage, that of
adulthood (approximately from 30-65
years), the crisis reflects Erikson's belief
that psychological health or pathology de­
pends on how one relates to the world
outside oneself. The developmental stage
brings to the fore the crisis of "generati­
vity v. stagnation" and the basic strength
characteristic of this stage is "care." Just
as the infant incorporated the world as its
primary mode ofbeing, the adult's is to be
generative, productive, creative. Ob­
viously, adults are procreative, and from
30 to 65 years they are usually involved in
caring for their children, but they may
also be caring for the ideas, the art, the
works of hand which they have produced,
or they may be caring for other people's
children (the children of the world). The
underlying preoccupation, here, is to ad­
vance life, the life which has been given us
to care for.'
The antipathetic pull, in this stage, is
towards stagnation, and the core patholo­
gy is "rejectivity." Stagnation in adult­
hood can mean seW·absorption, or
treating oneself as if one is one's only
child so ~hat another's pain is never seen.
Or it can mean, also, an obsessive need
for pseudo-intimacy in a regression to the
earlier stage of young adulthood. "Rejec­
tivity" means a refusal to include particu­
lar persons or groups in one's area of
concern, so that one does not care to care
for them.
The eighth and final stage (65 years
and onwards) involves the psychosocial
crisis of "integrity v. despair." and the
basic strength to be achieved is "',sdom.
::"., .
Integrity i'mplies a wholeness, a coming
together of all the parts of one's life. It is
an emotional acceptance of one's per­
sonal life. It is not a denial of the pain or
the tragic in one's life, but an awareness
that all Iives are touched by some ofboth.
Erikson dei(tnes wisdom as "the detached
concern wii'h life itself in the face ofdeath
itself." AD of life, not just my life, is my
concern, according to this view, even as I
am dying. I am a part of humanity and I
am open to life, even as mine closes. Wis­
dom, Erikson continues "responds to the
needs of the oncoming generation for an
integrated heritage and yet remains aware
of the relativity of all knowledge." This
allows for inter.generationai understand­
ing, rather than conflict.
. The opposite of integrity is despair,
and the core pathology of the eighth stage
is "disdain." Despair says that human ac­
tions have no meaning, that I have noth­
ing of value to give to others, that my
experiences have had no worthwhile ef­
fect on me. Just as wisdom unites us to
others in a common humanity, despair
wars with human connectedness, and dis­
dain is its legacy. Disdain implies a dis­
gust with the human experiment, with
others who have suffered. and ultimately
with the self that is not understood.
Erikson's final stages return us, full cir­
cle, to his first: a trusting, hopeful child ..
can become a caring, wise elder. In both
cases, the eye is turned outwards, away
from the self. The attitude is one ofopen- :
ness and optimism. The integrated, wise '
. elder who continues to give to life by his
involvement with all living things is, thus,
less afraid of death. Such an elder is, ulti­
mately, a model for the next generation
for, as Erikson observes in conclusion,
"healthy children wiD not fear life if their
elders have integrity enough not to fear
Julia Gargiulo. who lives in Greenwich. is a psychotherapist and social worker. ..
• Greenwich Time. Sunday, May 17.1987­