top of page



The word “integrity” has two somewhat complementary but distinct meanings.  One focuses on “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” The other focuses on “the  state of being whole and undivided; having internal consistency”.  Because the “integrity” of the first definition is one of my most valued and protected character traits, it tends to be the one that captures my attention. The second, however, increasingly has my attention.


Erik and Joan Erikson developed their map of psychosocial development when they were, as they describe it, in their “middle years”, with “no intention of (or capacity for) imagining ourselves as really old.”  They make this observation in their final shared book, The Life Cycle Completed (1982). They were at the time personally grappling with the experience of the eighth stage, which they called the “last stage”.  They were aging. While the book revisits the conceptual structure of the entire developmental map, their new awareness reveals itself, as they focus more on aging. They also elect to affirm the map, including this final stage, as they had described it.


The Eriksons posited that the developmental crisis at the “last stage” is “integrity versus despair”. The emergent strength for those who master the developmental crisis is “wisdom”.  The use of integrity here is focused on the second definition of the word, a state of being “whole and undivided”. They were positing a degree of cohesion with a sense of finality.l The Eriksons also note in their analysis: “No doubt, the role of old age needs to be reobserved, rethought”.  They recount some personal experiences that had already altered their insights.


So integrity stays, but we need to do some reworking of what that entails. And my attention was captured, focusing on an exploration of the second meaning of integrity. If I hope to offset despair, how do I ensure movement toward being “whole and undivided”?  Exactly how does one consciously and deliberately, at the final stage of life, while acknowledging death, set out to be “whole and undivided”?  What does that look like? Do you do something to make it happen?


I am increasingly convinced that the path forward points to a trait in elderly persons that others often dismiss or even find tedious: the recalling of past life events.  In the eighth stage, an entire life becomes the focus, the “stuff” of wholeness and cohesion. It is the work of making sense of the prior seven stages and weaving the life lessons into a whole, a product that is undivided. It is the work of bringing together all dimensions of a personal biography. The risk of ignoring this challenge is despair, a sense of defeat and disengagement so often witnessed in older persons.


How then to proceed in response to the challenge of this developmental task? It is my experience that much of my past life just “shows up”, in sudden memories: pictures on the book shelf, family gatherings, dreams, conversations, even meditations and prayers. These emergent memories have no pattern or organizational structure: they simply announce their presence and demand my attention. They become the stuff of my consciousness and seem to ask for some response or action.


Some are positive, affirming, even joyful, and I find myself smiling.  The births of my daughters and grandchildren are examples of this. Sometimes there is detail, as my recollection of one dimension of writing my dissertation: the impact it had on my daughters. My older daughter wanted to work with me on it. She was 8 at the time, and so she took over alphabetizing my extensive bibliography, which she did expertly.  My younger daughter was 4 at the time and found the dissertation tedious, even irritating since it often had my attention, asking “Just how many of those ‘distertations’ do you have to write until you are done”.


This story is a good example of a small “fiber” of my life story that, in my search for integrity, becomes a thread in a tapestry of my eighth stage of work of becoming whole and undivided. I actually like the metaphor of tapestry because that is often how I experience it, and I find the anticipated outcome something of planetary beauty.  These “threads” of life history emerge, and I am faced with the task of weaving them into my tapestry, into some semblance of wholeness, constructing a picture of my biography as it nears its end, the preparation for the integrity of a good death.


Of course, this all sounds quite lovely when the memories that emerge are joyful, positive, fun, funny, beautiful……what we call the “good memories”.  While I may enjoy the recollection of these positive moments, I also find the moments and experiences I think of as “negative” arrive uninvited, and demand their place in the tapestry.


Integrity asks me to be whole and undivided, but my first impulse is actually a form of despair, a sense that I do not like this memory and am not sure that I want to “own” it.  I feel divided. Then I find myself flooded by thoughts and emotions I view as negative: resentment, shame, blaming, anger, self-pity, guilt, grief: where do they belong in my tapestry? I can feel myself hoping to abandon the entire enterprise.


Of course, the thoughts and emotions themselves are not the stuff of my biography, but simply my reaction to specific events or experiences. The work of the “last stage” does however involve these events and experiences as threads in the tapestry. Happily, with a lot of inner work, these less than pleasant thoughts and emotions have become useful to me. Their emergence, if I pay attention, has helped make sense of another dimension of aging that is often noted but rarely well developed: “Letting Go”. My effort to weave these events and experiences into my tapestry requires that I first "Let Go" of the disturbing thoughts and emotions that distort the story, knot and tangle the thread.


In a prior blog I acknowledged that I am not good at Letting Go, so the fact that it is part of the work of the eighth stage has me exploring this a bit more, admittedly slightly chagrinned.   I have found that the only way to honor the parts of my biography that evoke “negative” thoughts and emotions and make sure that they are part of my effort to become “whole and undivided” is to deliberately, systematically and persistently “Let Go” of the thoughts and emotions which I may have been slogging along with for decades.


An example may be useful.  Fairly early in my academic career, I directed a research center in a large urban School of Nursing.  I started out with a 50% secretary and the last resources of a federal grant awarded my predecessor.  I did this work for six years, built relationships across the campus and with local and regional health care communities, initiated city-wide annual conferences on research outcomes, and assisted faculty and community nurse colleagues in getting funded projects, publications, and presentations, thus better ensuring tenure.  At the end of the six years, I had generated the funds for a full-time secretary, administrative assistant and statistician and employed 20 graduate students part time who learned about research through their jobs. Yes, I was very proud of what I had achieved.


This is a good example of all the threads of the tapestry that I really like, that make me smile, and are easily included in my “whole and undivided” weaving.  This memory brings forth another recollection, a colleague who strongly believed, during the latter half of the same six years, that she should be the director of the center.  She made a good case: she had federal funding she brought with her when she was hired. I did not have federal funding. Her career focus was largely on research; mine was largely on philosophy, teaching and leadership. She actively campaigned to have me removed from my director role. All this was part of the story too.


When I stepped down to direct the doctoral program I had provided leadership in creating, this colleague became my successor.  It was something of a relief that she could no longer engage in what I experienced as repetitive “sniping”.  Then, one by one, several graduate students came to me to tell me that my successor was requiring the graduate students to sort through everything in the center and remove my name anywhere it appeared.  That was their current work assignment.


See, it is an excellent example of the sudden return of old, worn out, but never released negative thoughts and emotions.  No way I can add this to my elegant “whole and undivided” tapestry!   I was awash in resentment, shame, blaming, anger, self-pity, guilt, grief. What was even more irritating: they were really old washed up and useless thoughts and emotions I had been carrying about with me for what was indeed decades.  My successor was actually deceased, and yet here I was sloshing around in these recollections. I opted for change.


The practice I have implemented to deal with these kinds of dilemmas is to say out loud: “I Let Go of this!”  Now this is a practice recommended in numerous wisdom systems, and I recall that wisdom is my hoped-for emergent strength, so getting very concrete, practical, conscious and persistent seems Important.  Most systems do not recommend saying this “out loud”. I added that because I really need to go the extra mile because “Letting Go” is not my strong suit. I have to admit that I often find I have to repeat my statement more than once since I can be very tenacious about hanging on to utterly useless thoughts and emotions.


Once the damaging thoughts and emotions are released, I can find a place in my “whole and undivided” tapestry for what I had experienced as the slights, cruelties, errors, and painful parts of my biography. I can find a descriptor that is not charged with noisy sludgy “negative” distractions.  In the story above, I have included in the tapesty one of my life lesson threads: some humans have an impulse to want to withhold recognition of another’s accomplishments, and experiencing this cannot be used as an excuse to fail to create the good in your life.


Coming full circle, I return to the observation of the Eriksons: “No doubt, the role of old age needs to be reobserved, rethought”.  One aspect could be rethinking why the elderly “reminisce” so much.  Are they merely responding to the memories that emerge, often unexpectedly?  What are they sharing and why?  What is their hope or goal? Are they too, in their own way, trying to create their tapestry, their sense of wholeness, weaving in pieces of their past?


Because I am on the high end of the introversion scale, I may be disinclined to share these memories, but most people are extroverts who make sense of their reality through interactions with others.  Perhaps that is what is really the dynamic we are observing.  Perhaps the reminiscence is actually an act of weaving a tapestry, an effort to become whole and undivided, to bring the story of their lives to some sense of cohesion and finality.


If one could imagine we actually listened to the stories attentively, we might be able to do something quite useful. We could ask, quietly, how recalling the event made them “feel”.  If they say it makes them feel “bad” in some sense, a possible response might be “I bet you’re ready to let go of that yucky feeling”, said with a light touch.  If they say it makes them feel good, one could say “That sounds like a great memory to hold close”.


It's a thought…


“Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life.”


-Erik Erikson-


OWLcourage Community Members are invited to join in the discussion on this blog using

the button below.  Not a member?  Sign up by clicking on the button and following the sign-

up instructions.

If this blog post might be of value to someone you care about, share the link


bottom of page