A “generative” person

The Eight Beatitudes speak to you much more than the Ten Commandments now. I have always wondered why people never want to put a stone monument of the Eight Beatitudes on the courthouse lawn. Then I realize that the Eight Beatitudes of Jesus would probably not be very good for any war, any macho worldview, the wealthy, or our consumer economy. Courthouses are good and necessary first-half-of-life institutions. In the second half, you try instead to influence events, work for change, quietly persuade, change your own attitude, pray, or forgive instead of taking things to court.

Life is much more spacious now, the boundaries of the container having been enlarged by the constant addition of new experiences and relationships. You are like an expandable suitcase, and you became so almost without your noticing. Now you are just here, and here holds more than enough. Such “hereness,” however, has its own heft, authority, and influence. Just watch true elders sitting in any circle of conversation; they are often defining the center, depth, and circumference of the dialogue just by being there! Most participants do not even know it is happening. When elders speak, they need very few words to make their point. Too many words, the use of which I am surely guilty, are not needed by true elders. Second simplicity has its own kind of brightness and clarity, but much of it is expressed in nonverbal terms, and only when really needed. If you talk too much or too loud, you are usually not an elder.

If we know anything at this stage, we know that we are all in this together and that we are all equally naked underneath our clothes. Which probably does not feel like a whole lot of knowing, but even this little bit of honesty gives us a strange and restful consolation. When you are young, you define yourself by differentiating yourself; now you look for the things we all share in common. You find happiness in alikeness, which has become much more obvious to you now; and you do not need to dwell on the differences between people or exaggerate the problems. Creating dramas has become boring.

In the second half of life, it is good just to be a part of the general dance. We do not have to stand out, make defining moves, or be better than anyone else on the dance floor. Life is more participatory than assertive, and there is no need for strong or further self-definition. God has taken care of all that, much better than we ever expected. The brightness comes from within now, and it is usually more than enough. The dance has a seriousness to it, but also an unself-conscious freedom of form that makes it bright and shining. Think of two old lovers quietly dancing to a soft clarinet and piano melody of the 1940s, safe and relaxed in one another’s arms, and unconcerned whether anyone is watching. The dance is completely for its own sake.

At this stage, I no longer have to prove that I or my group is best, that my ethnicity is superior, that my religion is the only one that God loves, or that my role and place in society deserve superior treatment. I am not preoccupied with collecting more goods and services; quite simply, my desire and effort – every day – is to pay back, to give back to the world a bit of what I have received. I now realize that I have been gratuitously given to – from the universe, from society, and from God. I try now, as Elizabeth Seton said, to “live simply so that others can simply live.”

Erik Erikson calls someone at this stage a “generative” person, one who is eager and able to generate life from his or her own abundance and for the benefit of following generations. Because such people have built a good container, they are able to “contain” more and more truth, more and more neighbors, more and broader vision, more and more of a mysterious and outpouring God. 

From “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” by Richard Rohr