Sunday thoughts: On being prodigal and otherwise

Spiritual development has been on my mind lately, partly because it's a natural topic when you're a mother of teens and young adults, partly because I love to think about anything development related, and partly--mainly--because I've been thinking about my own in this midstage of life. Let's see if I can wrangle these thoughts into words.

In my church (as with life, actually), there are a parade of milestones that happen in the first 20-30 years of your life--covenants and rites of passage that serve as religious training wheels and give a sense of spiritual momentum. After that flurry, I have found the next phase to be a different kind of challenging in the quest to sustain progression in what seems like a developmentally stagnant time.  

No matter the religion, there is understandably a lot of ministering effort centered around helping people navigate the dangers and perils of the rapids of the first stage; the second has been somehow portrayed as kind of paddling around in a serene lake, trailing fingers in the water while we endure to the end.  In my experience that lake can boast some pretty strong undercurrents--they are different challenges, to be sure, and we rarely address them but they're there. 

Christian writer Ronald Ronheiser, in his new book Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturitymakes the point that spirituality and discipleship have stages and seasons and, accordingly, different challenges and tasks. (The developmentalist in me stood up and cheered! Seriously, I could not stop underlining this book. It fits so well with Erikson's stages of development.)  He explains:

The first phase, essential discipleship, is the struggle to get our lives together.* 
The second phase, mature discipleship, is the struggle to give our lives away.

This means in the first phase we struggle largely with external things, physical appetites, and our place in the world--who to be. In the second phase the struggle is more internal as we figure out how to be (and specifically how to focus away from ourselves and be generous--a la Erickson's stage of generativity). To illustrate his point he uses the parable of the prodigal son in a really interesting way: 

"Someone once quipped that we spend the first half of our lives struggling with the sixth commandment (Thou shalt not commit adultery) and the second half of our lives struggling with the fifth commandment (Thou shalt not kill). That may be a simplification but it is a fertile image. Indeed the famous parable of the prodigal son and his older brother can serve as a paradigm for this: the prodigal son, illustrating the first half of life, is very much caught up in the fiery energies of youth and is, metaphorically, struggling with the devil; the older brother, illustrating the second half of life, struggling instead with resentment, anger, and jealousy, is metaphorically and in reality, wrestling with God" (page 6).

I've been mulling this over a lot lately. I'd always thought the parable simply described two different kinds of people. But it's a parable so it thankfully begs many different interpretations.  I love thinking of it this new way, illustrating a developmental progression for each of us. And I'm always going to applaud an interpretation of a passage that forces us to apply the whole thing to our own selves rather than thinking in terms of us and them.

By the way, I had also somehow assumed "prodigal" meant wayward and rebellious but its definition is more about being lavishly abundant and extravagant. As in (aha! lightbulb moment!) prodigious. So the prodigal son went overboard, wrapped up in the abundance and sensory overload of life, producing and consuming and spending (time, energy, money) until he was depleted. (I can relate, ahem.)  

In contrast the older son struggles with his internal landscape of jealousy and comparisons and ideas of fairness. His developmental crisis is all about learning to be generous and to throw away the scorecard. While the younger son's challenge is to put himself in the right place, the older son's challenge and task is to put his heart in the right place. This spiritual stage, represented by the older son in the parable, asks us to refine ourselves and better embody what we believe. Rolheiser gives the following suggestions on some of the invitations of mature discipleship (they're not for wimps!):

  • be willing to carry more and more of life's complexities with empathy
  • transform jealousy, anger, etc., rather than give them back in kind
  • let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul
  • forgive
  • live in gratitude
  • be wide in your embrace
  • bless more and curse less (as in give love/support not spite/complaint)
  • stand where you are supposed to be standing and let God provide the rest

I've been carrying around these thoughts for a few weeks, trying them on and wearing them like new shoes, and they seem to fit where I am right now. And--bonus--they seem to fit several other arenas in my life beyond the spiritual (like all of them: parenting, education, career, relationships, creativity, life aspirations) as I continue to try to figure out what it means to truly be a grown-up--in the gospel and otherwise--while admittedly still reverting to some prodigal ways now and then, too.

Pretty personal, I know, but I'm posting this in hopes there's a kernel of truth here for you regardless of your religion or perspective. Either way--happy Sunday!


Creative timing

When I was about 10 or 12, my mom took a drawing class with a local artist. It was based on the classic approach in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. I remember being awed by the sudden magic of her ability to capture life in her sketch book.  I particularly remember sketches of her hands and one of my brother Chris that was so true to his two-year-old self (do you still have that one, Mom?). I was pretty enchanted by this new, artist version of my mom and by the idea that you could just capture the world on the surface of a paper. 

Lately my hands have ached to DO SOMETHING, create things. I love writing but it's so internal and thinky. I find myself wanting to create something outside of my head, with my hands, bypassing words. I remembered my mom's Edwards text and went looking for it one day last week before I picked up Sam from school. (Plus a Scandinavian embroidery book for good measure because the accruing of the STUFF of a project is the part where I tend to excel.)

Sam has an after-school math class on Fridays so I took the book, pencils, and a sketchbook with me while I waited the 90 minutes in the car. Scanning through a couple of the chapters, I had a bit of an epiphany reading what she had to say about seeing differently so, as she suggests, I gave my first self-portrait a try, using the visor mirror for reference, aware that to passersby I looked like a mirror-gazing narcissist. Here's to being vulnerable and sharing--

self portrait 15 Nov 13.jpg

This is totally out of my comfort zone and I'll be the first to say I've got a long long way to go--the prickly art critic/doubter on my shoulder has pointed out this is just me-ish and maybe an anime version at that with the wide-eyed zombie stare--but the magic of making lines suddenly take life?  Wow, what a rush. I'm hooked and Betty has officially rocked my world. (If you've ever played Draw Something with me, you know this is a big leap!)  Ahoy! I'm drawing! I draw! I'm a draw-er! Is this a breakthrough, that I'm a draw-er? I draw now! (Hurry, name that movie before clicking the link.)

In mentioning this to several friends I've been amazed how many people remembered their moms/dads/grandparents taking up drawing at around this same stage with the same book. Maybe it's a life timing thing. If I think about it, my grandfather started building the family cabin by hand in around this time in his life, as well as learning woodcarving, iron work, and stained glass. My aunt started watercolor painting, another one took up oil painting. It's like it's hardwired in our human development to branch out creatively at this stage. (Hello, Erikson's generativity/stagnation stage. Nice to see you again.) Or maybe it's just a time in life when we finally have a tiny sliver of extra time available to devote to new interests?

What about you? Have you started a new creative endeavor or are you itching to learn something new? Where do you channel your creative leanings? 

[Edited to add: This will be a lighter posting week while we all run around doing Thanksgivingy things. We'll see you here on MWF. Have a great week!]

Erikson, epiphanies, and me

Taking It All In by Karen Offutt

Taking It All In by Karen Offutt

I was making the bed today when I started thinking about Erik Erikson. I'm not sure what it was about the mundane act of fluffing wrinkled pillows and tucking sheets that made my thoughts alight on him in particular but there he was, in my mind on a Monday morning. 

Maybe it was because it is Memorial Day back in the US. I thought of the many family members making their pilgrimages, with flowers in their arms and memories in their hearts, to stone tablets marking the lives and legacies of loved ones.  

Erikson, bless his theory-making heart, is one of my top-three developmental psychology gurus. He thought about development as a lifelong proposition, with stages progressing fully into old age. Each stage has a conflict that influences biological, social, and individual psychological development. The successful resolution of each conflict--which must be done before moving on to the next stage--leads to a resulting virtue. Each builds on the one before it. Just as a quick runthrough (that will thoroughly cheat his theory of its deserved explanation), the stages look like this:

  • Birth-1 year: Trust vs. mistrust. Leads to hope.
  • 2-3 years: Autonomy vs. shame & doubt. Leads to will.
  • 3-5 years: Intiative vs. guilt. Leads to purpose.
  • 6-12 years: Industry vs. inferiority. Leads to competence.
  • 13-18 years: Identity vs. role confusion. Leads to fidelity.
  • 18-40 years: Intimacy vs. isolation. Leads to love (and partner/family formation).
  • 40-65 years: Generativity vs. stagnation. Leads to care (giving back)
  • 65 years and older: Ego integrity vs. despair. Leads to wisdom.

I think I might be the poster child for that seventh stage right now! (Never mind how gut-dropping is it that I am now in the seventh of eight life stages! Zoinks. Oh, and we will tackle his teen identity stage another day, I promise.)  I think "generativity" could also be replaced with "creativity." If you are anywhere near that age range, maybe you can relate, too? 

This stage, says Erikson, is all about a new, dawning awareness and need to make an impact in the world, to understand the bigger picture, and use our own voices.  It's all about creating a community, a legacy beyond stone memorials, and giving back. It's the pull to keep learning and not stagnate.  It's why I returned to grad school, I think, and why I leapt into this blog project. It's why, in the middle of a rather scary series of mammograms a couple of years ago (it turned out fine, whew) I thought "but I haven't written my book yet." Oh, Erik. Spot on, sir.

This clip of an interview with the always inspiring Maira Kalman goes along with this sentiment/stage perfectly (found via Brain Pickings):

"It's love and it's work. What else could there possibly be?...What is the most wonderful thing I could be doing and who are the most wonderful people I could be with?"

How does your life compare with Erikson's stages? Are you aware of the drive for generativity/creativity? What kinds of things are you planning for the life-after-children years? Are they the same or different from what you're doing now?