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.
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.
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:
A 49-year-old fourth grade teacher who has won awards for her performance in the classroom, Diana says her most important values are to "give back to society" and "to grow and help others grow." Diana describes the lowest point in her life story: When she was eight years old and was supposed to be watching her five-year-old brother in the front yard, she got distracted. Her brother darted into the street and was killed by a speeding car. For many years after, Diana tried to be "the good son" her mother and father had lost. She played sports and took on other activities that boys were expected to go into. These efforts failed to alleviate her guilt, but Diana experienced a kind of redemption years later when she married a wonderful man "my parents loved as a son."
Highly generative adults tend to tell life stories with what psychologists call "redemption sequence," where a bad scene or event gives way to a positive outcome, which redeems the initial bad event. Adults inclined toward generativity tend to see their own lives and world in redemptive terms. Bad things may happen. Suffering is inevitable. But good things will often result, if one keeps faith and hope alive. Erik Erikson argued that to be generative, people must have a basic "belief in the species." They must have faith that despite suffering and setback, despite evil, human life can be good, for generations to come. This belief sustains our most difficult generative efforts. Holding out hope for ultimate redemption gives us faith that our legacies will be good, that things may work out in the long run.
I believe that the most generative people are constantly imagining such futures. They envision a better world for themselves, their families, and their society. When you imagine the future this way, it sensitizes you to the sacredness of life on earth. The most generative people among us cherish life as if it were a beautiful infant.
An African proverb says, "The world was not left to us by our parents. It was lent to us by our children." What survives me are the world's for children, for those whose sake I act today. It is as if the most generative people among us most readily envision the future's children, as if they see the baby watching them. Innocent and dependent on our own efforts to care, the future looks to each of is with hope.