The Deep Caring Crossroads: Choosing and Creating a Life of Generativity

Project Directors: William Bergquist and Gary Quehl

There are many choices available to each of us during a lifetime. These choices can lead us to a self-renewing life or to stagnation and decline. Many of these decisions concern the way in which and the extent to which we care about other people, our heritage and our community. As we noted in the Preface, Michael Corleone, the second generation Godfather, made choices throughout his life that were concerned with what he should care about and how he should engage this caring. And his choices led to stagnation and despair for Michael as he sat at the end of the third Godfather movie beside the still waters of Lake Tahoe.

We make choices. We may suffer from the wounds of betrayal and alienation—in some ways the violation of our life covenant—but we still have a chance to turn toward new purposes. We can shift from the wounded leader to the generative teacher. We can be transformed from the person who was left behind to the person who is helping a new generation lead the way into the future. Though we may have lost the opportunity to play an active role as parent to our children, a second form of parenting is available in abundance during late midlife. We can be parents to our organizations, to people for whom we serve as mentors, and to young people in our community. We can savor the joys of caring for our grandchildren and can become valuable volunteers in nonprofit organizations. Just as life seems to take away opportunities for active leadership, public recognition and parenting, it offers a second opportunity for new forms of parenting.

Many ways in which to be a “parent” are available at all points in our life. We can be a parent not only to children and other people but also to ideas, subordinates, people we mentor, institutions, communities, and even cultures. Erik Erikson (Erikson, Erikson and Kivnick, 1986) describes this expanding notion of generativity as “a vital strength of care [and as] a widening concern for what has been generated by love, necessity, or accident; it overcomes the ambivalence arising from irreversible obligation. Thus, [it] attends to the needs of all that has been generated.”

In essence, our need for generativity concerns two primarily factors. First, generativity is about extending our presence and influence with our own children, with the next generation, with our heritage, and with our community. We become gardeners who tend the garden. We want the flowers, the trees and the plants to live long after we do and to represent, in some important and tangible way, the manner in which we make an appearance on this earth. We want the garden to reassure us and the world that we made a difference. This point was tenderly and melodramatically conveyed in both Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

At the beginning and ending of Camelot, we see King Arthur preparing for battle against Lancelot, his dearest friend. In many ways, King Arthur looks a bit like Michael Corleone. He is beaten down and has lost any sense of purpose or meaning in life. With despair Arthur, like Michael, is reflecting on the broken state of his kingdom and, in particular, his round table and code of chivalry: “Right makes might. Not might makes right!” It is only when a young boy is discovered by Arthur and displays his own fervent commitment to the roundtable and code that Arthur breaks out of his depression. Arthur commands the boy to return home: “Run boy run.” He sends the boy away so that the tales of Camelot “might not be forgot.” The abundant garden that Arthur has tended can now be restored by this representative of the next generation and other young men and women who witnessed this “one, brief shining moment of glory that was known as Camelot!” We can only wish that someone could have redeemed Michael Corleone, for there is very little that is noble or good about his adult life; the deeds he has already done are probably damning him to eternal stagnation.

In the case of Capra’s Wonderful Life, George had sacrificed a fulfilling life to serve his family and community. His covenant was violated (We will have more to say about covenants later in this book.). George never was given a chance to get out into the world. He wasn’t even sure if the other half of his covenant—making a difference to his family and community—was fulfilled. As in the story of King Arthur and many other Capra movies, (e.g., Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe), the principle character in Wonderful Life is a former idealist who is now burned-out and disillusioned.