Erik Erikson, a student of human development, offered the basic structure that I have used in looking at the process of growth. Approaching his study from a psychoanalytic starting point, Erikson attempted to identify the various stages of development that we humans go through in our life cycle, from birth to death, focusing on the psycho-social dimensions .
Erikson waltzes us through the life cycle, beginning with our infancy of finding trust or mistrust in our experience of being cared for in the family; moving us on into childhood with the discovery of our capacity to do and produce; then to our adolescence of discovering our identity as to who we are apart from our parents; leading to the profound shift to intimacy of sharing our Self with an Other; and our generative work of making meaning and living with significance. It is quite a ride, leading one merry prankster to observe: “what a long, strange trip it’s been!” Indeed.
Erikson notes that at the end of life, one naturally conducts a review of what has happened during the course of one’s years. It’s a “look back”, a retrospective, the work of reminiscence. He said that in that review process, one is looking to discern any common patterns, or some thread of meaning that runs through the course of existence. If there is a coherence, a trajectory that seems to hold up in the woof and warp of living, then one is given a sense of integrity, and has a feeling of hope that one’s life has been spent well, in service of a greater purpose that transcends mere survival.
On the other hand, If there is no thread of meaning found in reviewing one’s life, one is left in a state of despair, wondering if this life has any meaning or value. Peggy Lee’s sung question comes to mind, “Is that all there is?”
One consistent thread for my work and life investment has been in this very process of reflective review of one’s experience. It has taken various forms and settings, but all circle around this process of self-awareness that is a part of our journey. Jimi Hendrix may ask, “Are you experienced?” while I would press, “Are you aware?”
My life review has pointed me to one specific thread that runs throughout my time. For me, it was about the human endeavor of naming one’s experience in the midst of the flow, and the fine art of weaving those moments and episodes into a story, a narrative of meaning. It has been my life’s work to tend to those stories, that of others in my South of God landscape, and my own particular and peculiar existence.
I believe that it began for me with my basic curiosity of listening to people tell their stories. I had a natural pool of elderly men who were a part of the Friendship Class at Oakland City Baptist Church. My granddad would take me to the Sunday School class as a boy, and I would listen to the stories of these old men, talking about their life in war, their struggles in their work, keeping their families together. And, if I was attentive and quiet, I would even get the opportunity to overhear their wonder about God.
This later took on a fascination when I heard of a pastor, Dr. Carlyle Marney, a progressive South of God theologian who had studied patristics, of all things. When he retired from the pastoral ministry, he began a “retreat” format of gathering ministers together to tell their stories, to get some spiritual refreshment, and to reflect on how they are going to move forward in their ministry. It was called Interpreters House, meeting at a Methodist conference center in North Carolina, and consisted of three weeks of intensive personal work, or life review, if you follow Erikson, which he did. The first week was spent in a circle, telling your story…Marney called it “throwing up” as you shared the joy and pain of ministry with other fellow strugglers. It proved to be the “magic” that harkened back to the ancient practice of telling stories around the campfire, only these weren’t only ghost stories told but epic hero tales of how one made it through life, to point.
At Marney’s death, Jim Fowler and I, working together at the Center for Faith Development at Emory, tried to focus the process into a time period of a week, using small groups of three or four, rather that the thirty that usually formed Marney’s participants. We had a decidedly more developmental view, so we gathered people in generational groupings, beginning with a cohort of ministers who were three years out of seminary. Then, we worked with other cohort groupings, ministers ten years out, twenty years out, and thirty years of experience. We called it Pilgrimage Project, producing a published format that was extended eventually to lay persons in a parish setting as well as our original intent, clergy on retreat.
When I first started working with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church at the Training and Counseling Center, I was working with homeless folk, many that had been turned out from psychiatric hospitals that could no longer hold them involuntarily. Again, I wound up listening to stories that these people would tell, many of cataclysmic events that turned their lives upside-down. Many were successful people with an issue with addiction that knocked them down. Still others, reached the top of their profession, but found that “top” hollow, without meaning, spurring them to opt for another narrative. The stories were fascinating, but again I found myself looking for patterns and noting the quest for meaning that was operative.
From working with the homeless downtown, my next move put me at the Episcopal Cathedral in Buckhead, the toney suburb of Atlanta. There I found remarkable upward mobility as well as old money. But the surprise was that the wealth and prestige of success did not free these folks from the quest of meaning. In fact, it raised the stakes as one had achieved the riches of the promissory note given by our consumer culture, and yet often felt like something significant was missing. The country club life proved boring, the momentary windfall empty, the zombie marriage that looked good on parade left one or both partners dissatisfied and hungry… and I could go on.
It taught me an important lesson: the quest for meaning is at the heart of our human existence, regardless. What is it that gives your soul purpose? In a more pedantic frame, what gets you up in the morning? As a sobered friend of mine presses, with a paucity of restraint, why do you not kill yourself? I only talk to him on good days.
At the end of my life cycle, the questions of meaning press, often relentlessly? What did you give yourself to? What were the core values that got your best energy? Where did you find joy? Where did you display a courage that surprised you? Where and how did you stumble? And, as I learned later in my quest, how did you get up and walk again, even with a limp?
I have a host of these existential questions that I have been pushing and pulling around for some time. I have formed cadres of people who do not shy away from the difficulty of such questions. They form my community of faith, liberated from structure and bureaucracy, things I once valued highly, inordinately,
I now gather groups of pastors and priests to dive deep into the waters of life, and story, hoping to overhear the fellow traveler’s journey as well as to share my own. I have the blessing of meeting intentionally with clergy who are struggling in real time with issues of leadership and management, hopefully helping them to discern the difference. And I get the joy of overhearing the stories of ordinary people, like the old men in the Friendship Class, tell of their lives and the meaning they have found.
So, that’s my pause for the cause as we head into my favorite time of the year, Fall, which always signaled new beginnings and fresh start-ups. I hope that it may prompt your own “pause”, to take the time to ask yourself the questions that clarify your purpose and the meaning in your life.
A pause for the cause.