Being a Good Ancestor

From pg. 224 of Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, a discussion on what matters at the end of life:

According to Erik Erikson, the last psychological stage that people confront is what he called the task of achieving integrity. What he meant by this is that if we live long enough and if we resolve all the earlier tasks of adulthood–such as developing a viable identity, a close and satisfying intimacy, and if we succeed in passing on our genes and our values through generativity–then there is a last remaining task that is essential for our full development as a human being. This consists in bringing together into a meaningful story our past and present, and in reconciling ourselves with the approaching end of life. If in the later years we look back with puzzlement and regret, unable to accept the choices we have made and wishing for another chance, despair is the likely outcome. In Erikson’s words: “A meaningful old age…serves the need for the integrated heritage which gives indispensable perspective on the life cycle. Strength here takes the form of that detached yet active concern with life bounded with death, which we call wisdom…”

The notion of integrity connotes the ability to tie together, to relate to others outside oneself. Erikson thought that the perspective of an older person is based on a new definition of identity, which could be summarized in the sentence “I am what survives me.” If toward the end of life I conclude that nothing of myself is likely to survive, despair is likely to take over. But if I have identified with some more enduring entities, my survival will provide a sense of connection, of continuity, that keeps despair at bay. If I love my grandchildren, or the work I have accomplished, or the causes I have championed, then I am bound to feel a part of the future even after personal death. Jonas Salk calls this attitude “being a good ancestor.”

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