Plan D

I started college in the fall of 1969 as an engineering student at Cornell University. Most of the people in my life saw this as a threshold experience, a first substantive step toward a career as a NASA engineer. I wasn’t so sure.

As it turned out, 1969 was a threshold year, but not in the way I’d expected. Instead of taking that next step toward NASA, I ventured out of my familiar world of math and science into the unknown.

I left engineering and, over the next three years, filled my schedule with liter­a­ture, philosophy, psychology, and creative writing courses. I sought guidance from mentors living and dead, among them fiction writers, poets, ancient Buddhist and Hindu sages, and twentieth-century gurus like G.I. Gurdjieff, Ram Das, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I marched against the Vietnam War, hitchhiked across the U.S. and Canada, learned the carpenter’s trade, played tennis, learned modern dance, rode a motorcycle, wrote poems, took photos, dropped acid, meditated, and plumbed the depths of my psyche in therapy.

It wasn’t until the second semester of my junior year that I had a name for what I was experiencing. It came from a book I was reading in a grad school psychology class I’d persuaded the administration to let me take. In it, we read some of Freud’s and Jung’s seminal works, a hefty tome that summarized the other schools of psychology of the day, and Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society. My ah-hah! moment happened when I encountered this chart in Erikson’s book:

The chart summarizes one of Erikson’s most important theories. He posited that as we move from infancy to adulthood and eventually die, we go through specific stages of development, and that in each stage, we experience a psychosocial crisis we must work through if we are to fully actualize. If we don’t successfully resolve a crisis at one stage of life, we must carry it forward as a kind of unfinished business.

I realized I had arrived at the fifth step, “Identity vs Role Confusion.” (Identity vs Role Confusion typically occurs during adolescence, so I was a little late to the game.)

At this stage, our task is to re-examine our identities; figure out who we are in relation to our families, friends, and communities; and determine the role we will play as adults, especially in terms of sexuality and occupation.

After my recent post about retirement and the cascade of thwarted post-retirement Plans A, B, and C, I became curious about why finding Plan D was even an issue for me. There are no external pressures pushing me to choose a direction, and yet it felt urgent that I have one. Why?

Once again, Erikson provided me with a key to answering that question.

Fifty years after that first ah-hah! moment, I find myself in the last of Erikson’s stages, “Ego Integrity vs Despair,” which typically begins around age 65. (I’m 71, so once again, a little late!)

Erikson believed that working through Integrity vs Despair enables us to reach a place of wisdom, where we can see our lives as complete and can accept aging and death without fear. As he defines it, during this stage, our task is to look back on the life we have lived and go through the process of accepting it as a successful one. This is a critically important stage, because it’s the last one. If we fail to make the effort, we may arrive at the end of our lives with regrets, bitterness, and despair over what might have been, unfinished business forever … unfinished.

Resolving this final stage doesn’t require that we are “successful” according to any objective set of criteria. Instead, we look back on our lives and forward to the road ahead, and we see our limitations, recognize our achievements, and make peace with who we have been and who we have become. As with Erikson’s earlier stages, most of us will vacillate between the two poles of the crisis, but if we persist, we will arrive at a satisfactory state.

In this context, I see the succession of Plans A, B, and C not as ends in themselves, but means to this end. Whatever my specific activities turn out to be, the underlying purpose of Plan D is to complete the Integrity vs Despair stage consciously. Moving forward, I now understand that this awareness is far more important than what I do or do not do with my remaining years.

So far, revisiting the stories, photographs, letters, experiences, and relationships from earlier developmental stages has been an important part of resolving the Integrity vs Despair crisis. I find myself embracing and activating all of the sub-identities I have had from adolescence through retirement, slowly bringing them all to something that feels like completion.

Fifty years after I first encountered Erikson’s diagram, I still find it to be one of the most important tools I’ve encountered in the field of psychology. It’s useful for us individually, but also a lens through which to see and understand where the people in our lives are, developmentally, and how we might help them move from their current stage to the next one.

Your mission, gentle readers, should you choose to explore this further, is to Google “Erikson’s stages of development” and read about each of these stages. You may find, as I have at 21 and again at 71, that you’re exactly where you need to be.


Copyright 2022, David J. Bookbinder

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