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III.A Life of Deep Caring

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The Life Choice: Generativity or Stagnation?

Like Michael Corleone, King Arthur and George Bailey, we have choices to make. Do we choose generativity or stagnation? Do we undertake the risk of teaching and learning? Or do we accept the status quo and refuse to take a risk? When we are stagnant rather than generative we continue to do the same old thing. We settle for mediocrity, allowing our dreams and personal aspirations to wither away. We come to resent and even block the ideas and achievements of younger people. We dwell on the past, while abandoning the future. Typically, stagnation sets in because we are afraid of change. We don’t believe for some reason that we can keep up with the next generation.

In our own work as coaches and consultants to mature men and women, we find they often speak of personal fears associated with confiscated dreams of the future. They have sacrificed in order to realize personal aspirations and to fulfill dreams about family, career, and even retirement. What happens to so many during late midlife? They no longer have a future, for the future is right now. They have confiscated it and must now either savor the present day or create a new set of plans for the future. This is the process of generativity. Alternatively, if they live primarily in their past with old dreams, they are not the generative guardians that Vaillant identified. Instead, they are regressive defenders of a past that sometimes never really existed, and they don’t want the past to be incorporated into the present. This is the process of stagnation.

Ironically, men and women who have spent most of their lives planning and saving for the future often find the creation of a new future to be terrifying. Yet, the creation of a new future is critical if they are to be generative—if they are to recreate themselves for the final acts of their lives. Bill Bridges (1980, 2001) associates this time of rebuilding with his concept of the “neutral zone.” This is a state of limbo that resides between the old realities and new possibilities. While the neutral zone is a difficult place in which to dwell, it is also a place that is filled with special bonuses: mentors, spiritual guides, new loves, rediscovered old loves, new dreams; furthermore, the new future is often joyfully and insightfully created in conjunction with the younger people they are mentoring or with whom they are collaborating. All of this is in conjunction with other members of their organization and community with whom they are building their new future.

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