In Childhood and Society, Erik Erikson, the German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychosocial development of human beings, ends his discussion on one’s development by focusing on the topic of integrity versus despair – a topic that becomes more pressing as one enters one’s fifties.
Screenwriting consultant Linda Seger defines a character’s integrity as the ability to hold to one’s ethical or moral identity, despite the powerful forces that threaten to knock one off track. Erikson believed that discovering how we can hold onto our integrity as we move through life is something we have to confront head-on.
As we begin to look back on our lives we ask the questions: How have we used our talents? How have we contributed to the world? In short, have we made of our lives something to be proud of?
Whereas during our earlier years we tend to focus on our achieving or rounding off success in the world’s eyes, our later years are devoted to scrutinizing the true meaning of that success.
“Reflections on one’s own character tend to arise later on in life as wisdom and integrity accrue, unfettered by the ambitions of youth.”
If one has compromised one’s integrity in pursuit of gain during our twenties, thirties, and forties, dealing with the spiritual and psychological consequences during our fifties and sixties becomes a growing preoccupation. Stories abound of unethical practices being revealed later in life, often stripping the character of her material possessions and public esteem.
Although Erikson sees this conflict as maturing in one’s sixties, it can pop up at any age. At home and in grade school, we are taught not to cheat or steal, and we do so at the expense of our conscience, leading to inner conflict – although it is probably true that our later years grant us more time for reflection.
The importance and longevity of this age-related theme is reflected in the number of films that have received Academy Awards in recent years: The Green Mile, American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, Elizabeth, The Lord of the Rings, Traffic, The insider, L.A. Confidential, and the like.
Advancing years – fifties and beyond – offer us the perspective to consider the integrity of our lives, and to reflect this in our writing.