The Ages of Man

Time and again, I am reminded of the fascinating theories of the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson.  Perhaps Erikson’s major contribution to psychology was his model of  ‘The Ages of Man’, where he described human life to consist of eight ages, each with its particular challenge to be mastered. Each challenge is intimately linked with a particular relationship in the individual’s life and meeting it successfully, one attains a particular psychological ‘virtue’. On the other hand, failing to meet the challenge adequately leads to a ‘malignancy’.

Erik Erikson

One may understand this well by taking the example of the sixth stage, perhaps the most important of all stages. From the early teens to the early twenties, this is a stage where the human being’s basic challenge in life is to find a sense of identity. ‘Who am I?’ ‘What are the values that I can live my life by ?’ ‘How far can I adopt my parents’ values, and how far shall I adopt those of the new generation?’ ‘How do I deal with basic experiences of happiness and suffering?’ ‘What work should I spend my life doing?’. These are some of the questions that impinge on the young individual, who has, metaphorically speaking, put one step out of the threshold of the family into which he was born, but has one step still inside the safe, familiar cocoon.

In tribal societies, passing into puberty is marked by certain rites of initiation. The young boy or girl may be dressed up in the attire of the ancestors, pierced at certain parts of the body, taken to locations that are otherwise not meant to be visited, and told of the history of the tribe as understood through mythology. Sometimes, ‘secrets’ of the tribe may be revealed in a manner that is often painful or frightening, but at the same time, leaves an impact on his psyche for all time to come. Then on, he is a full-fledged member of the tribe, ready to have a life partner, and to join the adults in their work.

I remember that when I was 14, I discovered a fascination that I still have – reading autobiographies. How interesting it was to know the life of someone else, often told in frank and revealing detail, and live it vicariously, and know whether one would like to have a similar life or not. At the same time, I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, hoping it would help me find some direction in life. It came across as quite unappealing to me, except for its strong sense of passion that I dimly remember and strive to have even now, at 27. A few months later, I picked up the Quran, wanting to know what it was, after all, that my ancestors had lived their lives by. I could not relate to it, because I felt that the story of the people of Israel, which constitutes the second and one of the longest chapters of the Quran, had nothing to do with the difficulties of my life, my relationships, my studies. I was not really concerned about heaven, hell and divine punishment, as much as I was about having the affections of the girl I liked, or finding a suitable area of study for myself. Over the years, I found my sense of identity in other areas, which are reflected in this blog, including the Quran. But these were initial attempts to know who I am and what kind of life I want to live.

Erikson writes that meeting the challenge of identity successfully gives one the virtue of ‘fidelity’ to a worldview, a way of life. One knows where home is, where one is to return for solace, comfort and inspiration. Failure to meet this challenge leads to ‘repudiation’ – often unconscious. This is the attitude that there isn’t much in life worth striving for, one is a leaf blown around by the wind, at the risk of being torn to pieces. Since life means very little, addiction to drugs, alcohol, or dangerous driving fills in the void. Or, it may lead to the opposite, ‘fanaticism’. The person may join a group that demands unthinking submission.

Below is a chart of all the eight ages that I found on the internet.

Stage (age) Psychosocial crisis Significant relations Psychosocial modalities Psychosocial virtues Maladaptations & malignancies
I (0-1) —
trust vs mistrust mother to get, to give in return hope, faith sensory distortion — withdrawal
II (2-3) —
autonomy vs shame and doubt parents to hold on, to let go will, determination impulsivity — compulsion
III (3-6) —
initiative vs guilt family to go after, to play purpose, courage ruthlessness — inhibition
IV (7-12 or so) —
school-age child
industry vs inferiority neighborhood and school to complete, to make things together competence narrow virtuosity — inertia
V (12-18 or so) —
ego-identity vs role-confusion peer groups, role models to be oneself, to share oneself fidelity, loyalty fanaticism — repudiation
VI (the 20’s) —
young adult
intimacy vs isolation partners, friends to lose and find oneself in a
love promiscuity — exclusivity
VII (late 20’s to 50’s) — middle adult generativity vs self-absorption household, workmates to make be, to take care of care overextension — rejectivity
VIII (50’s and beyond) — old adult integrity vs despair mankind or “my kind” to be, through having been, to face not being wisdom presumption — despair

Other challenges, at other phases of life, include the ability to generate a valuable body of work, the ability to forge intimate relationships, and so on.

I like to think of these challenges as ‘existential’ in nature rather than ‘psychological’, that is, they are common to most of us human beings, rather than different in each one of us in accordance with his particular life history, and childhood, which have shaped who he is. Often, our psychological difficulties, outer or inner, may prevent us from meeting the existential challenge. Being a generally anxious person may keep one from committing to a particular kind of identity (repudiation), or to stick to an identity blindly (fanaticism).

Also, it is true the other way round. An unmet existential challenge may cause psychological difficulties. Not being able to meet the challenge of making an valuable contribution to the lives of others, through work, may cause one to feel depressed and unenthusiastic about life, for example.

In the same way, a successful resolution of the existential challenge may, to some extent, resolve one’s psychological difficulties. A generally anxious person may find a more stable, serene ground to his being if he is rooted in a strong sense of identity, through commitment to a particular cause, for instance. A generally aggressive person may learn to be more accepting and understanding of other’s faults through a relationship where he finds love unconditionally, so that he may see his own ability to give unconditional love.

Erikson, therefore, provides a map for our lives that we may often consult to understand where we are headed, and also takes psychology out of a preoccupation with purely neurotic issues to existential ones, issues that we all as human beings can relate to.

~ by tdcatss on January 26, 2012.

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