Beliefnet
From Spirituality and Health. Used by permission.

What do these three people have in common?

The other mothers at Shirley's PTA meetings had no idea that she had worked as a madam, was deeply involved in drugs and organized crime, and would eventually do time in a federal penitentiary. Today, the Shirley they know is an ordained church minister for an inner-city congregation. As part of her ministry, she organizes a local food pantry to feed poor families and the homeless.

Despite racial prejudice at school and work, Tony doggedly pursued his artistic dream and eventually developed a unique musical style that blends African and European traditions. Today he worries about race relations and the very survival of the human species, but he is optimistic: "I see such much beauty, so much productivity. I can't help but be hopeful for the future."

Raised in a very religious household, Christine was taught that she should find her "life calling" in service to others. But after three frustrating years as a service worker, Christine went back to school for an M.B.A. Today, she and her husband earn substantial income as consultants to small businesses and nonprofit companies. She feels blessed in her work and family life, but she also feels she should "give something back."

At this point in their adult lives, Shirley, Tony, and Christine are all focusing a great deal of attention and energy on the psychological challenge of generativity, an adult's concern for and commitment to the well-being of future generations. In other words, creativity that lasts. Adults can be generative in many ways-- as parents, teachers, mentors, leaders, friends, neighbors, volunteers, and citizens. In her ministry, Shirley dedicates her life to feeding children, helping poor families, and witnessing to her inner-city congregation. As a teacher, Tony works hard to instill a love of music in his students. He hopes his work and his life will help advance, in some small way, the well-being of future generations. As a mother, Christine focuses her generative efforts on her two daughter's but longs to do more.

Generativity is about generating good things (and people). Therefore, giving birth to a child is perhaps the most fundamental form of generativity. But people can "give birth" to many different kinds of things-- starting from a new company, to making music, to coming up with a new solution to a problem. Generativity is also about caring for those things (and people) that are generated, with an eye toward promoting the next generation. In generativity, we come to accept that we won't live forever, and seek to leave a positive legacy for the future, to leave a part of ourselves behind. According to noted psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who gave us the term "identity crisis" and won the Pulitzer for his book on Gandhi, people begin to focus their lives on generativity as they move in their thirties, forties and fifties. In the middle-adult years, Erikson wrote, a person may come to realize, "I am what survives me."

A growing body of psychological research shows that being highly generative is a sign of psychological health and maturity. People who score high on measures of generativity tend to report higher levels of happiness and well being in life, compared to people who score low. High generativity is also associated with low levels of depression and anxiety.

While generativity may be good for you, it is good for your family and the society in which you live. Parents who score high on generativity measures are more caring and effective in their parental roles, and they are more invested in their children's education. Highly generative adults tend to express a more spiritual understanding of life and to participate in religious activities at higher rates than do less generative adults. Generativity is also positively associated with volunteerism, community involvement, and voting. Social institutions such as schools, churches, and government agencies depend on the generative efforts of adults.

You need look no farther than the first chapter of Genesis to find perhaps the greatest generativity story in Western religious traditions. In the beginning, God creates-- generates-- heaven and earth. And then God creates people-- in God's own image. As adults, we do the same thing. Our generative products-- our children, our work, our legacies-- are modeled after ourselves, flesh from our flesh in the case of our children. In this sense, then, generativity involves extending the self in a powerful, almost narcissistic, way. Like God, we make a world in our image.

But like God, we must care for what we have made. If the first aspect of generativity of the self, the second aspect is almost selfless. It is not enough to make something in your own image. You must care for what you make, nurture and love it, sacrifice yourself for it, and eventually let it go. Letting go is not easy, as God learned when Adam and Eve disobeyed him. Ultimately, we cannot control what we generate. But we must care for and love it still.

The two faces of generativity are power and love, forces that often conflict in people's lives. Our narcissistic need to develop and expand the self may conflict with our more altruistic need to care for and help others. In generativity, however, we have both. What we generate becomes a legacy of the self, and we care for that legacy selflessly. The fullest expressions of generativity blend power and love.Over the past 10 years, my students and I have interviews many highly generative adults, We have discovered that most tell their life stories with an emphasis on the theme of personal redemption. Consider the following examples:

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus