My conceptualization of “Wisdom Work” did not, like Athena (the Goddess of Wisdom) spring fully armored out of Zeus’s head. I had to work for it. My first foray involved my usual effort at a deep dive through books…lots of books. While they provided an occasional insight, they failed to assuage my curiosity. They intensified it.
I had for years conducted full day workshops on generational conflict, and had developed an awareness of my own space in the array of generational phenomena. Shaped by the work of Erik Erikson (and Joanne Erikson) I understood I was moving into their “eighth stage” of “maturity”, where my challenge would be the tension between Ego Integrity and Despair and the outcome for humanity would be my acquisition of Wisdom. In principle, this all sounded quite good. In reality, it was a place of uncertainty, a cloudy gray space at best.
The books I read often were written by authors hypothesizing about aging and the aged, and their array of biases was at least interesting though rarely helpful. Reflecting on my own experience, I realized that for most of my life, this developmental stage that I had observed in others was shaped by societal practices. It appeared to me to involve a gradual fading into less and less visibility and then at some point, disappearance. This last step was of course death but even then, we used euphemisms: crossed over, passed on, no longer here. It was like humans became phantoms.
Ernest Becker’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize book, The Denial of Death, had shaped both my sensibilities about death and my awareness of societal escapism. I was a nurse; we were not in denial, and we could not escape death. Watching the denial everywhere around me, however, was familiar. It did look like this eighth stage appeared to be one of fading and dying. Nowhere could I find some clarity about Ego Integrity, though I felt like I observed a good deal of Despair. How Wisdom was going to show up in all of this was a total mystery.
And then, as a species, we became more and more driven to extend life, to ensure longevity. Now it appeared we might try something other than fading and dying, though there were no indicators what that might be. We were committed to prolonging stage eight; we did not have a plan for stage eight. I was slogging through my search for Athena’s Wisdom as these shifts swirled around me.
The first clear understanding that emerged for me is what I called “The Blank Whiteboard”. In the US, every prior developmental stage had a fairly rich array of clear societal expectations. Indeed, our conversations reinforced them. “What do you plan on doing when you finish high school?” “When do you plan on starting a family?” “Have you saved for their college tuitions?” These are merely examples.
Stage eight had no societal expectations, unless you accepted fading and dying as one. The reality was that we were hammering out longevity with nothing on the Whiteboard of Social Expectations to clarify where we were headed and to what end. When you add The Denial of Death, the blank whiteboard is even more confounding. Not only were we phantoms, but phantoms who thought they were immortal!
I have paid attention, however, and do see a few things emerging on the whiteboard: time to be with grandkids, travel, do things put off due to the job, downsizing, joining “senior” communities and their activity menus. These however obviously do not focus on Ego Integrity, Despair or Wisdom. In addition, while other developmental stages implicitly explain what you bring to society, the blank whiteboard fails to provide this information. Nary a clue!
The second big insight my search for Wisdom Work generated was the realization that in contrast to all prior developmental stages, personal individual uniqueness was incontrovertible at this point in the life cycle. It was starkly clear that no other human had lived the life of the person entering the eighth stage. Not only was there no Whiteboard of clarity, to have created one would have highlighted this phenomenon of uniqueness. Every person that enters stage eight has a story. No two stories are the same. As is perhaps apparent, their Ego Integrity involves fidelity to that uniqueness. Despair may be the struggle to discover what that uniqueness brings to the challenge of Wisdom. No wonder everyone was fading. This looked like tough work.
My final insight is the one I still reflect on daily. The social systems in the US really do not signal an expectation of wisdom. Wisdom is often treated as a surprising and unexpected phenomenon. It is assumed that most persons perceived as “old” are not purveyors of wisdom, indeed may be the opposite. Our systems also imply that in contrast to the prior developmental levels, in this one you not only do not “Work” but should persistently demonstrate that you are not “Working”. Now some of this is the blurring of “work” with “employment”, as if the latter is the only valid meaning of the word Work.
Work is defined as “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result; a task or tasks to be undertaken; something a person or thing has to do”.
When I study the “Basic Virtues” outlined by the Eriksons that are linked to each of the developmental levels, each seem to me to require “Work” to achieve the desired outcome: Hope, Willpower, Purpose, Competence, Fidelity, Love, Care and the last, Wisdom.
The Eriksons posited that without Basic Virtues and their re-emergence from generation to generation, all other and more changeable systems of human values lose their spirit and their relevance. It seemed they were important; it seemed they required work to achieve a desired emergence. Now this was the Eriksons’ world view; still, I found none that were more compelling or useful to me.
I was willing to do the work of Ego Integrity. I knew and grappled with the push and pull of Despair, sobered by how often it seemed the primary state of other older people I knew. I understood that the outcome I was seeking was “Wisdom”. Somehow, bringing that Wisdom to planet earth in some unique way was my challenge to be accepted. It all, of course, required “Work”. This was how I conceptualized “Wisdom Work” and began my journey through this poorly defined and understood developmental stage of ultimate unique adult maturity.
I like to think this is obvious, but I have more to say about the journey itself, so the blog is a platform for me to share my explorations of “Wisdom Work” while inviting others to partner and share in this interesting “invention” or human development. Indeed, OWLcourage is an important part of my personal “Wisdom Work”, so I am trying to bring it to planet earth in my unique way. It is my hope that it serves as an invitation to others to pursue their unique “Wisdom Work”!
“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.”
- Henry David Thoreau -
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