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[Chalice] Generativity: 'I am what survives me' [Chalice]

Presented December 9, 2018, by Susan Morrison Hebble

Opening Words: by May Sarton

"I would like to believe when I die that I have given myself away like a tree that sows seed every spring and never counts the loss, because it is not loss, it is adding to future life. It is the tree's way of being. Strongly rooted perhaps, but spilling out its treasure on the wind."


Our reading is from a children's picture book called Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney: In the book, we learn about the life of Alice Rumphius, from young child to elderly woman; in her old age, Miss Rumphius takes to spreading lupine seeds in the wild along the Maine coast, just for the beauty of it. Here, her grand-niece--our narrator--reflects on her mentor:

My Great-aunt Alice, Miss Rumphius, is very old now. Her hair is very white. Every year there are more and more lupines. Now they call her the Lupine Lady. Sometimes my friends stand with me outside her gate, curious to see the old, old lady who planted the fields of lupines. When she invites us in, they come slowly. They think she is the oldest woman in the world. Often she tells us stories of faraway places.

"When I grow up," I tell her, "I too will go to faraway places and come home to live by the sea."

"That is all very well, little Alice," says my aunt, "but there is a third thing you must do."

"What is that?" I ask.

"You must do something to make the world more beautiful."

"All right," I say.

But I do not know yet what than can be.

The Talk: Generativity: 'I am what survives me'

Like most of you, I'm sure, I have some special things that were left to me--stuff from people I've loved; I want to tell you about two of them: I have on my kitchen counter from one grandmother, a cookie jar, and on my right hand I wear a ring from my other grandmother. Both are lovely, but what is significant are neither the cookie jar nor the ring: their influence on me involves so much more, for you see, those two things evoke the essence of these women who came before me, an essence that, I believe, lives on in me, lives on in my living. My mother's mother, beautifully named Gladys Ruby Wilson Kelley, was a strongas- an-ox woman, well-read and hard-working, proud of her Scottish heritage and prone to quote the poetry of Bobby Burns; she rarely expressed her feelings, rarely told any of us that she loved us. Rather, she did so with her steady presence, her warm smile, and most deliciously with her cooking and baking. And she was always baking for more than just her family--always there was some combination of distant cousins, neighbors, or folks from my grandfather's garage and car dealership at the kitchen table on Ford Street in Marengo, Illinois, just a few miles from the farm where she was born. The cookie jar was always full, figuratively and literally, for her family and for anyone who needed sustenance. In fact, at coffee hour, you will find a version of her icebox sliced pecan cookies to enjoy.

My paternal grandmother, whom some of you may remember, was Frances Porter Eldred Morrison, born and raised in a home built by her father, just across the street and a few doors west of this church. Frances was shy, fiercely intelligent, and quietly independent: Around 1914, she graduated with a music degree from Lombard College, a small Universalist college in Galesburg which eventually combined with the Meadville Theological School. Instead of returning to Quincy, she moved to Chicago where she worked in a music store, demonstrating and selling pianos and piano music in the loop. This was no mean feat for the unassuming, shy Frances in an age when few small-town women, even those raised in privilege, went to college, let alone moved out of their father's home--unmarried! Upon her eventual return to Quincy, she taught piano lessons, volunteered for the Red Cross, and joined the Quincy Unitarian Church, two years before her own parents signed the book, and became a fixture here as organist.

She eventually married Paul, the son of a Methodist preacher (but Paul joined this church with his wife); Paul was most notably the founder of the instrumental music program at Quincy High School, a program which he led for 30 years. Like her husband and like her father before her, Frances became a humble pillar in Quincy, a tireless supporter of music education and a patient and nurturing piano teacher for children and adults for most of her 92 years. One of the rings I wear was her mother's and then hers, and I still picture it on my grandmother's hand-- her long, graceful fingers at the piano or at this organ, making beautiful music. So, what of these things that I have and hold dear? (I hope you are thinking of your own treasures, too. . . .) They are really just things, yes, but they are symbols, too, resonant reminders to me of what my ancestors taught me about the world, about life, about values such as hard work and candor and kindness and curiosity and humility and, most of all, care.

My grandparents are gone, but they are still here, I know; their impact on my parents, on my brother, on me and on those lucky enough to share time and space with them is distinct, if immeasurable. For example, just a few years ago, I met a woman who told me she had learned how to play the piano in my grandmother's living room. She said she never mastered the instrument, but she continued lessons just to share a half hour with Frances; this woman, well into her 70s, told me she still enjoyed playing, and that she learned much from "the gentle spirit" of my grandmother.

I don't know that anyone truly knows or understands the influence of their own presence in the world, of what survives them. Sure, the very rich can put their names on buildings or foundations and carefully craft how the world will officially remember them. And it is lovely to think of leaving behind tangible evidence that our lives have left a mark, solid, clear, concrete, and indisputable: a library, a charitable organization, a scholarship, a place, a piece of music or art. Maybe we don't think we have the funds or the opportunity or the wherewithal to leave a dedicated legacy behind, or maybe we're too busy living our lives to prioritize such things. Few of us stop to think, let alone plan, how we might be remembered, what impact we might be having, what impact we might yet have, what our legacy could be. But perhaps we should, perhaps we should. Not only for our sake, but for the sake of those to come.


Some of you may know of the work of psychologist Erik Erikson, a student of Anna Freud and author of an influential theory of the Life Cycle, which posits that we "go through a series of eight stages [from infancy to old age]." According to Erikson, at each stage of life, everyone will face a crisis which they must successfully resolve in order to develop the psychological quality central to [that] stage [and necessary to move with authority to the next stage of life]" (Cherry). In your orders of service you will find a half-sheet that offers an overview of these eight stages, the crises encountered with each stage, and the "virtue" (that's Erikson's term) acquired when one resolves the crisis positively.

I confess, I am a little uncomfortable with some of the elements of Erikson's paradigm: the orderly and dichotomous structure of each stage is perhaps oversimplistic (look, some days I may be full of care, and others I may be full of selfabsorption; some days I waver between the two by the hour! And even though I am, mathematically, well-beyond the crisis of identity vs. role confusion, I sometimes feel like that 15-year-old who just isn't remotely sure of who she is or who she is supposed to be.) And the implication is that people have comparable life spans and circumstances--the theory, in general, does not account for socioeconomic factors or even health factors that require some people to, for lack of a better term, grow up too soon.

But still, since I first encountered this theory--when I was way back in stage five-- I have returned to it again and again as a fine reference point for what we deal with as we become ourselves. And I have been most intrigued by and drawn to the seventh stage of the life cycle, in which the individual must face down the tension between succumbing to a life of stagnation or committing to a life of generativity and, if successfully generative, acquiring the essential corresponding virtue, the cherry on top of the generative sundae, care, itself both a noun and a verb.

There's a lot to unpack here!! For one thing, I love the word "generativity"--it's a cool word! It's a word that encapsulates the complexity of our responsibility to be spawned from a previous generation, connected to a contemporary generation, while working for a future generation. Like the related words, generate, generation & generosity, generativity conjures notions of proliferation, progeny, magnanimity, creation.

Of the stages of adulthood, then, this one requires us to ask ourselves "what will we do, what can we generate, ultimately how will we be generous toward today's children and for future generations?" And how we respond to those questions is an answer to what Erikson poses as the unsettling central existential question of this stage, "Can I make my life count?" It's a challenge. . . a rally cry, really! Exciting, energizing, hopeful!

But, full disclosure, I have also felt the pull of stagnation, the weariness and weight of life. It's easy, isn't it, especially in this crazy upside-down world in which horrific things seem to overwhelm our televisions and our cell phones like an ice storm, a world in which we see people treating other human beings with disdain and oppression and indifference, a world in which we ourselves may be treated with disdain and oppression and indifference, it's easy in such a world to feel that nothing we do matters, to feel defeated or mean or hopeless, to turn inward rather than outward.

Really, though, we don't need a psychologist to tell us that one of the sometimes shocking lessons of adulthood is the realization that what we do (or don't do!) matters to more than just ourselves. Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing articulated this very idea nearly 200 years ago:

Others are affected by what I am, and say, and do. So that a single act of mine may spread and spread in widening circles, through a nation or humanity. Through my vice I intensify the taint of vice throughout the universe. Through my misery I make multitudes sad. On the other hand, every development of my virtue makes me an ampler blessing to my race. Every new truth that I gain makes me a brighter light to humanity.

So what grace and honor and responsibility comes with this realization? To become a "brighter light to humanity," requires what Erikson calls a "a belief in the species," a sense that "human beings are potentially good, and human life can be good" (McAdams); such determination allows us to "forge ahead, regardless [of the sadness and suffering that is bound to occur]" (Harvey). In other words, as symbolized by a depression era cookie jar and a chipped ring, I have learned that we have the power and love and the innate obligation to make goodness prevail, long after we're gone. "I am what survives me."

Dan McAdams, psychology professor at Northwestern, extends Erikson's definition by acknowledging a duality within the idea of generativity: its "first aspect," he writes, "is a powerful extension of the self"--much as a child is an extension of the parent, or as a student is an extension of the teacher; the second aspect of generativity, McAdams says, is "almost selfless." He writes: "we cannot control what we generate. But we must care for and love it still."

So, while stagnation results in decay, futility, immobility, detachment; in generativity we find and create both power and love for others; "what we generate[, then] becomes a legacy of self, and we care for that legacy selflessly" (McAdams). I am what survives me.

At times, though, we might feel like we are in a rut, might even determine that our generative plans have gone off the rails. But just as often, we might step outside ourselves and realize, indeed, that even though, to paraphrase Bobby Burns, "the best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry," what we have created instead may be unexpectedly but fully generative, and no less significant to those touched by it.

Just ask George Bailey.

Surely you've seen the Frank Kapra classic, It's a Wonderful Life, a movie we cannot avoid at this time of the year, for good reason. Our hero, George Bailey, is suffering through the crisis of stagnation versus generativity, isn't he? He had always dreamed big dreams--traveling to exotic lands, building "skyscrapers a hundred stories high" and "bridges a mile long." Indeed, his intention was for those things to be his legacy. But we know how the story goes--George never does shake "the dust of this crummy little town off [his] feet"; and in his despair, he fails to see the love or even the power he has, well, generated, right there in Bedford Falls. (A town that, I admit, reminds me a bit of Quincy.) But then, of course, Clarence the Angel (Second Class) helps George understand that he has been generative all along. You know the famous quote (maybe the 2nd most famous quote) of the movie: "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

Or ask Glenn Holland.

It's not as well known, but you may remember Mr. Holland's Opus, a 1995 tear-jerker about an ambitious composer who intended his legacy to be the symphony he works on when he isn't teaching music in a high school. Played by Richard Dreyfuss, Glenn Holland is as frustrated as George Bailey: Seeing himself as a failure who could not complete his symphony and who loses his teaching job due to budget cuts, Mr. Holland questions the value of his life's work. He laments: "You work for 30 years because you think that what you do makes a difference, you think it matters to people, but then you wake up one morning and find out. . . [that] you're expendable." But eventually he learns that, all along, he was forging a legacy, one student at a time. In the moving final scene, which shows an auditorium filled to honor him, a former student articulates this idea: She declares, "There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life."

As these stories show, we learn to be generative from those before us--mentors, parents, siblings, teachers, maybe even someone we don't personally know but whose magnanimity spoke to our spirit, made us feel we counted. George Bailey and Glenn Holland, Alice Rumphius, Gladys Kelley, and Frances Morrison, and so many of those yet unnamed who make beautiful the symphony of life--they are naive models of generativity, unaware, to varying degrees, that what they did mattered in such resounding and essential ways.

And I suspect a lot of people in this sanctuary are similarly naive to the powerful ways they've mattered; for the most generative people--and I believe everyone here is a most generative person--the most generative people are those who not only imagine a healthy, loving world for their children, but for all children, because these children are bound to be generative adults, if we care to show them how.

Sometimes, you see, we need to be reminded that we are not only of this moment but, like those before us, we can also embrace the honor and responsibility, as Erikson promises, of "cultivating strength in the next generation" and in the generation after that (Erikson 67). Just as those before us could not see how we would carry on their legacy, we may not see the fruition of our own life's true work, but it is out there; it is out there.

I ask you, now, to close your eyes a minute and think of someone who generated for you love and care that you carry forward; or think of someone whose life you have touched or whose life you are touching now and for whom you may not until this moment have realized the generative power you extend. I encourage you to write the name of at least one person on the blank note provided in your order of service and to share that name with someone during our coffee hour.

I think I may like best of all Erikson's reference to Hindu theology and the idea that the "spirit of adulthood" is identified as "the maintenance of the world" (Erikson 66). Essentially, that is what grown-ups are supposed to do, right, maintain--care for--the world? And how much more satisfying is our life when we do so in mindfully positive ways--in good parenting, in working productively, in supporting social or cultural institutions like churches, museums, and community centers, but also in voting and volunteering and mentoring and in committing acts of kindness, large or small. The love and care we give, you see, will generate exponentially, will "[spill] out its treasure on the wind" far beyond us.

So the question today is this: What might you do to reflect your life's purpose and values, what might assure and ensure coming generations of a better, stronger, lovelier world? What will survive you? I say, let's leave the best of us behind in word, in deed, and when we can, in things that emanate our care, for what survives us offers future generations the best lesson of all: the humble and loving and joyful acknowledgment that we are all connected through space and time.

I wish to close with words from Pericles: "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others."

Closing Words

The Book of Joy, by Desmund Tutu and the Dalai Lama:

No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield.

Works Cited

Cherry, Kendra. "Generativity vs. Stagnation: The Seventh Stage of Psychosocial Development." Verywellmind. 27 Aug. 2016. Accessed 18 July 2018.
Erikson, Erik. The Life Cycle Completed: A Review. New York: Norton. 1982.
Harvey, Elizabeth A. "What's Generativity and Why It's Good For You." The Huffington Post Blog. The Huffington Post. 23 June 2016. Accessed 18 July 2018.
It's a Wonderful Life. Directed by Frank Kapra, performances by James Stewart and Henry Travers, RKO Pictures (Paramount Pictures), 1946.
McAdams, Dan P. "Generativity: The New Definition of Success." Kristinesargsyan's Blog. 4 Dec. 2009. Accessed 18 July 2018. (Originally published as "Generativity: The New Definition of Success" by Daniel P. McAdams, PhD in the journal, Spirituality and Health, Fall 2001.)
Mr. Holland's Opus. Directed by Stephen Herek, performances by Richard Dreyfuss and Joanna Gleason, Buena Vista, 1995.
Tenzin Gyato Dalai Lama XIV, Desmund Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. New York: Avery. 2016.

©2018 Susan Morrison Hebble

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hebble, Susan Morrison 2017. Generativity: 'I am what survives me', /talks/20181209.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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