The Grace to Be Generative

That’s not a typo. I didn’t mean to say “Grace to Be Generous,” though I hope that we will have grace enough to be both generative and generous people. But today, I am thinking about the desperate need in our culture for a generative generation.

Erik Erikson, who has both a redundant name and some deep insights into human development, formulated helpful stages of psychosocial development. You probably read them and had to memorize them in your Psychology 101 course. I did, but I surely haven’t thought much about them since. Until recently.

As I look first into my own heart, then into my home and finally out over the horizon of our culture, I am convinced his lessons and concepts need to be revisited.

According to Erikson, there are necessary benchmarks of development that children must learn in different stages of life. A healthy child should learn trust, autonomy, initiative and industry before adolescence. The teenage years are focused on the struggle between forming a healthy identity or getting bogged down in role confusion.  If and when someone emerges with a healthy sense of identity, he or she spends the next chunk of life learning healthy patterns of intimacy as opposed to isolation. Once healthy interdependence has been learned, a person moves on to become generative. The generative person is one has learned to create and nurture something that will outlast themselves and their life spans rather than falling prey to stagnation where they would stay stuck in the shallow lands of self and the world.

That’s a lot of phases and big words, so maybe we ought to think about life in halves. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who has studied Erikson, writes, “There is much evidence of several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.”

Now, I am no psychologist or Franciscan priest, but I think I follow Erikson and Rohr’s lines of thinking. According to these theories, the job of healthy adults is to get outside of themselves, to lay down and invest the selves that they spent the whole first half of life forming. 

Rohr notes that our culture is almost entirely stuck in and focused on the first half of life issues. Guilty as charged.

Most adults, myself included, did not successfully navigate through the necessary phases. We got stuck somewhere, and like broken records, we keep skipping back to the same holes in our development. We can’t get all the way through the song. We get tripped up on identity and intimacy, and, often for very understandable and explainable reasons, our containers aren’t as strong as they should or could be. Therefore, we spend the majority of our time and energy trying to identify the cracks and fissures, patch the huge holes, and plug the leaks.

The problem is that many of us have children of our own now. They need us to be walking them through the phases of development, to be helping them build strong containers.

How in the world do we do this? How can I, a broken self with some serious container issues, offer my little broken-selved,  children the containers they so desperately need?

I have a narcissistic heart and I live in a narcissistic culture. I can easily spend large portions of my time and energy trying to serve and fix myself. I see it in me, I see it all around me: adults so focused on finding themselves and fixing themselves that they have little time or energy for the little budding selves who so desperately need generative parents.

But, and this is a big but, we have a generative God.

My broken container is held and is being reshaped by skilled and selfless hands. Those same hands are poised to pour abundant life into this shoddy container until it is filled enough to overflow into the cracked containers of others, my children included. This generative God even goes so far as to send His generative spirit to live within me.

Daily God offers me grace to be generative. Not only does He command me to get outside of myself, but He empowers me to do so.

Oh, God, give us grace and discipline to become a generative people who can raise up strong containers who are ready to be poured out in ways we weren’t.

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