Erikson's Final Stage of Life: "Gerotranscendence"
Richard P. Johnson, Ph.D.
I'm teaching a very short course, "Spirituality for the Second Half of Life," at St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern
Indiana on Sept. 11 and 12. Because I didn't want to pack the course syllabus with books by my own hand, I decided to re-read some of the books that have influenced me. One such book is The Life Cycle Completed,
by Erik Erikson and his daughter Joan Erikson. Joan posits a ninth stage of life (her father's theory of human development includes only eight stages); this final stage she calls Gerotranscendence, which she describes thusly...
- A new
feeling of 'cosmic communion' emerges
- Perception of time is paradoxically shortened to the very short run, and also lengthened to include a very broad horizon
- Space is contracting to a shorter radius
- Death become syntonic with personality,
not a disparate, noxious thing to be avoided
- One's sense of self expands and becomes more connected
Joan Erikson goes on to say, at least indirectly, that transcendence may be the developmental vehicle for elders to seek "new life and
role - a new self" in their later years, and that it includes exploring what she terms, "new and positive spiritual gifts." One of her points I really like is that transcendence can rise us above "the dystonic, clinging aspects of our worldly existence that
burden and distracts us from true growth and aspiration." Trying to cling to what was, is perhaps the surest way to sabotage any advanced growth in our elder years.
Other writers echo different sentiments that pertain to transcendence...
Fr. Richard Rohr captures an aspect of transcendence in his book Falling Upward when he speaks of the paradox of 'falling;' he says: "Most of us tend to think of the second half of life
as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but the whole thesis of this book is exactly the opposite. What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward into a broader and deeper
world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture." p. 153.
Sr. Joan Chittister, in her book The Gift of Years, teaches
us another facet of transcendence when she speaks of mystery: "So mystery, the notion that something wonderful can happen at any time if we will only allow space for it, takes us into a whole new awareness of the immanence of God in time." p. 76
In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle uses the notion of surrender to elucidate transcendence. "Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the
flow of life. The only place where you can experience the flow of life is the Now, so to surrender is to accept the present moment unconditionally and without reservation. It is to relinquish inner resistance to what is. p. 171.
my book, Even Better After 50, I use 'total wellness' as an instructive point about transcendence. "As we mature, we gradually learn that it is not our own choices, agendas, or directions that lead us down
the most productive and growth-filled paths of our lives and eventually to our true selves. Rather, it is when we delve deeply into ourselves and there find God - and in the silent, creative union thereof - that our true life choices, agendas, and directions
are most artfully realized." p. 191.
In the end, transcendence is an ethereal concept that speaks to us of that which is both beyond us and yet right within us. It is that condition of awareness that connects us to 'the numinous:'
that both startles and soothes us, illuminates and shakes us, elevates and humbles us, widely broadens us and narrowly focuses us, compels and confuses us... and so much more. Transcendence is the stuff of the beyond that is right here and right now; the paradox
of consciousness that can only be experienced when we let go of analysis, evaluation, metrics and measure, and allow our souls to open-up in simplicity to the real reality of God implanted in us.