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Generativity and its Relevance for People with Addictions

By Claire Cummings, Counsellor – Sunshine Coast Health Center

Erik Erikson first coined the term generativity  and defined it as a quality that tends to appear in mid-life.  It is a time when we begin to ponder what legacy we will leave and how we can pass on our skills, and history to the next generation.  Most often it is initially directed towards our children and grandchildren.  According to Erickson, this process is somewhat static. 

John Kotre was the first to suggest, in his book Outliving the Self, that perhaps this view was somewhat rigid and too tied to age, norms, and stages.  He concluded, “A way beyond these problems is to think of generativity not as a stage but an impulse released at various times between the late teens and old age… Generativity appears on and off in different guises through fifty or sixty years of adult life, and a case could even be made for its antecedents in children.  Only, on a rare occasions, does it merit the term stage.”

Dan McAdams, in an ambitious undertaking, sought to widen the context of the term and added, “it is about generating: creating and producing things, people, and outcomes that are aimed at benefiting, in some sense, the next generation, and even the next…Finally, the adult apprehends his or her own generative efforts…giving meaning to the unique pattern of inner desire, cultural demand, generative concern, belief commitment, and generative action in his or her own life—by constructing; (g) narration of generativity, which becomes part of the larger life narration, or life story, that makes up a person’s identity  (1985). A person’s life story can itself be a kind of generative legacy, for the story itself is psychosocially created and maintained and sometimes offered to others.  In essence, it is a way of life that becomes a “self-defining life story.” 

Now consider just for a moment, could this way of being point someone away from the depths of addiction?   How often have we heard, “I can’t even help myself so how could I help someone else?”  What if, just what if, the road out is actually the road in?  Think about that for a minute.  One of the pearls of wisdom bestowed in A.A. is you cannot hold onto something without giving it away. 

One caveat that should be thrown down is this: if it is to be purely altruistic the response or the reward for such a deed should be of no concern.  It is the fact that you yourself have been generative and should begin and end there.

Where might we look for evidence of generativity at it’s zenith?  Perhaps, we can look for inspiration at the lives of individuals.  We could even call them Profiles in Purpose: Boethius,  Dr. Andrew Wiles, Reynolds Price, Dr. Vivien Thomas, Stephen Hawking andTeilhard de Chardin.  They have left a legacy in medicine, theology, mathematics, physics despite adversities; imprisonment, illness, poverty, heresy etc.  So in that very real sense the very things that seem so negative were actual gifts that forever altered them for the better.  In that real sense, addiction is an affliction of the soul and the body that can be harnessed for goodness.  The way out is the road in.


Dr. Vivien Thomas: a surgical instructor at Johns Hopkins Medical School who lived in relative obscurity until he passed away and it was suggested the media report on the event. Though never formally trained, Dr. Thomas along with Dr. Alfred Blalock created the surgical procedure to bring oxygenated blood to “blue babies”  but never officially received the credit.  As a black man in 1944, he could not even be paged on the loudspeaker in public.  At night he bartended and served drinks to the doctors he taught during the day.  Despite his wife’s bitter objections he remained in the job of “lab assistant” for decades—it was his purpose and remains his legacy to thousands.

Boethius: a Greek philosopher and scholar fell out of favor and was imprisoned in Pavia.  His only “nurse” became philosophy and in eloquent prose he described how bad fortune is the gift to a man (not good fortune) and, ultimately, bad fortune can bring happiness.  His legacy to us is 169 pages of wisdom.  He found meaning and purpose in a small jail cell.

Reynolds Price: America’s most eminent man of letters was diagnosed with spinal cancer in 1984.  He subsequently underwent 4 surgical operations and endured years of pain and suffering that ultimately relegated him to a wheelchair.  He remains what he calls a renegade Christian and acknowledges with gratitude how his ordeal gave him A Whole New Life even though two years after his surgery the introduction of the gamma knife would have spared his mobility.

Teilhard de Chardin: a Jesuit priest who challenged the biblical story of creation and in turn suggested a very different theory around the unfolding of the cosmos.  His work was denied publication by the curia during his lifetime.  His words now echo down through history as an amazing collaboration of science and religion.

Stephen Hawking: a man who rarely needs an introduction.  I mention his name and I usually hear comments like “he is the black hole guy in the wheel chair, isn’t he?”  I respond, “that is right, but guess what if you believe in his theories then you believe in imaginary time—-past, present and future exist together.  Hawking does not discount the existence of God. Somebody asked his wife Jane once, “do you believe in God?’  She replied, “how do you think I have cared for Stephen all these years!”  She herself being a distinguished academic.

Dr. Andrew Wiles: the single most famous man in 20th century mathematics after providing a proof for Fermat’s last theorem.  One might think he was elated from that point on –his reputation being made and his fondest desire attained.  This was not the case he felt deflated and had to look for something else to drive his life and engage his love of mathematics.

Oseola McCarty: She astounded the University of Southern Mississippi by donating $150,000 for a scholarship for a deserving African-American student.  Miss McCarty worked all her life as a washerwoman and lived very frugally all the while saving the bulk of her meager earnings.   She wanted to give something she never had.

“I can’t do everything,” she said “but I can do something to help somebody.  And what I can do I will do.  I wish I could do more.

Bill Porter: Crippled at birth by cerebral palsy, Bill Porter believed to be retarded and stupid carved out a niche for himself as a faithful Watkins salesperson. He never became a ward of the state that had been predicted.  His indomitable spirit kept him trudging between 8 and 10 miles per day for over 40 years.  


In this post-modern era in which meaning is deemed subjective we must strive as Rollo May suggested to find our own personal meaning.  Woven through these amazing lives are themes that bode well when trying to find the way out of addiction: spirituality, reframing the narrative of your life and refraining from self sabotage.  They will light the path one step at a time.

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