Integrity Versus Despair

Integrity Versus Despair

The final stage in Erik Erickson’s psychosocial development is integrity versus despair.  In short, what this means is that people who have worked hard at developing a life of integrity will have the capacity, as they near the end of life, to enjoy a sense of meaning and satisfaction, thereby avoiding the alternative, which is an experience of despair.  Most pastors have seen this dynamic in operation, as we watch people die well and others in despair.  Of course, aging is difficult, bringing many relational, physical and emotional losses.  Reflecting on Erickson’s model is not meant to be an indictment on those who struggle with life’s last stage.  Everyone does.  Yet, some make the journey with a grace that others do not.  Does Erickson’s theory offer help in understanding why?

This question is no longer merely a speculative or professional one for me.  I am over 60 and planning retirement.  My wife and I live in a church-owned house.  Beautiful though it is, we will not live in it after we retire.  We have been married for ten years and, for many reasons, were unable to sell her house until this summer.  Shortly afterward, we bought a house in upstate New York, where we will eventually retire.  Perhaps this is why my therapist invited me into an exercise of values identification this morning.  He gave me a stack of cards with values written on each one.  Out of a large number of cards, I was to make a stack of values important to me and ones not.  The next step was to get my values-to-keep list down to ten.  Finally, the assignment was to rank them in order of importance.  Next week, we will deepen our conversation about these.

It’s not like I have not sifted through my values and priorities before.  Life is a process of evaluating what is most important to us.  Not surprisingly, spiritual concerns have consistently been a primary focus and a value which has given meaning and order to my life.  This exercise, however, helped me to think more deeply about the nature of my priorities and the work and patterns which support what is most important to me.  Much of my work as a pastor, and I expect after I leave full-time ministry, is about exploring our rich Christian contemplative tradition.  I am focusing now on the early monastic wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers.  The attention which they gave to the inner life is breathtaking, especially when compared to the lack of serious attention our culture gives to self-reflection and self-knowledge.  We are consumers to the core, and are led to believe that if something in us is amiss, there is something outside of us which we can purchase which will make everything all better.  Our ever escalating levels of consumption belie the veracity of this belief, but we keep on buying the seduction of the promise of consumerism.

Meanwhile, the early monastics counsel the spiritual seeker to limit the amount of food they eat and their preoccupation with food.  They guard against the temptations of sexual desire, of private possessions, of anger, of pride, of sadness and despair.  It takes some work to translate their counsel to our current time and for non-monastics, but for those willing to take an inner journey with them, there is much reward.  These monastics help us to guard against the all-too-familiar traps of self-deception, spiritual bypass and projection of our shadow.  Their discipline and stamina offer important corrections to the self-serving and self-justifying spirituality which we see everywhere, both inside and outside of the church.

It is curious that Erickson matched integrity over against despair.  Integrity requires work, discipline, fortitude and self-criticism.  The alternative to a life of integrity, he suggests, is despair.  For a culture in which integrity is seen as optional, the warning is clear.  In our commitment to making the self happy, no matter what, despair hangs over us like a pall.

Integrity also implies the pursuit of depth and meaning.  For life to have integrity, it must be about more than self and the pursuit of the world’s goods and pleasures.  There is a call, if we clear our inner space to hear it, to service, justice, compassion and beauty.  There is no integrity outside of the pursuit of justice for the whole or concern for the wellbeing of all.  What the monastics knew and taught, and what our own disciplines of spiritual practice will show, is that the work of clearing and emptying the self opens us to a deeper experience of presence and joy.  What we can learn, inside of ourselves, is that even in the midst of great suffering and darkness there is something, inexplicably, that holds us and sustains us.

I’ve seen it in others who have experienced much loss and suffering, and yet they find peace somehow.  Some presence still radiates through them.  I have tasted of this same reality in personal times of suffering and loss.

The contemplative or monastic path has collected many negative connotations in our culture.  Many see this path as being an unnecessary and harmful denial of life and the body.  For many of us, Christianity was taught in a way which made us suspicious of and ashamed of our embodied selves.  Perhaps we have over-reacted to harmful spiritual messages, and allowed our appetites and impulses to reign over us to our detriment.  Integrity requires rigor and denial.  As distasteful as these words sound to us, our monastic ancestors understood their life-giving qualities.  In order to avoid the dead-end of despair, they would counsel us to take a freeing and hopeful path of a disciplined spiritual life.

As a pastor concerned about the decline and possible death of the church, the integrity – death pairing seems relevant.  Perhaps, instead of focusing on keeping the institution running, the invitation is to focus on helping the institution rediscover what it would mean to develop integrity in its life and mission.  It’s precisely here that I am finding promise and relevance in our contemplative tradition, as a powerful antidote to despair.