Sunday, April 05, 2009

Erikson and Orthodox Pastoral Care

(This is a re-write of an earlier post that had a number of errors.  I'm using a new netbook with a smaller key board and screen, so my already minimal editing skills are being rather stretched.)

I'm sitting in the airport (my flights been delayed 1 hour and 20 minutes) on my way home from to the CAPS International Conference in Orlando, FL. Yes, I know, I've got a tough life—actually what I have is an incredibly supportive wife who encourages me in my undeniable eccentric priestly ministry.
In addition to being able to speak with colleagues, I did a poster presentation this year. My presentation—based based on a paper I presented at a conference last year—is a comparison of the. work of Erik Erikson and St Maximos the Confessor. Specifically, I'm looking at how they both look at the experience of failure.
While I say more on the content of my presentation later, as with most my academic work in psychology, the paper my presentation is based is more theoretical than applicative in orientation. My goal is to try and deepen how we in psychology understand the human person. So, my concern is not with St Maximos as such, but with (in the present case) the developmental theory of articulated by the psychologist Erik Erikson.
For those who know me, my interest in doing this is no particular mystery—this is simply a matter of transposing my own spiritual journey from the personal to the theoretical. In other words, my own spiritual life, my own faith as an Orthodox Christian, and my own admittedly eccentric ministry as a priest for that matter, grew out of my interest in psychology. For me, reflecting on Erikson (in the present case) is what inspired me to draw closer to Christ and His Church. Sort of like what the fathers call “natural contemplation,” or a reflection on creation that points the soul beyond creation to the Creator.
So why am I interested in Erikson's work?
One of the most interesting things about Erikson's development theory is that it is teleological. Human growth and development is not a matter of the blind working out of our genetic inheritance in response to environmental stimulus. To be sure as a disciple of Freud, the body (and thus later genetic research) has a role to play in Erikson's theory, but (unlike Freud) Erikson does not limit human development to simply the deterministic working out of bodily needs.
For Erikson human development not only has an identifiable goal it proceeds along following identifiable benchmarks. And not only that, there in Erikson's view of the matter there are also the possibility for missteps. These missteps are possible throughout life and while not necessarily fatal to our consonant development, neither are they inconsequential. At any point along the way, I can at any step off the path of wholesome development that would ordinarily lead from birth to death.
This potential for failure begins in infancy when the new born and is my constant companion throughout my life. It is this possibility of failure that I find most interesting in Erikson's work. Like other, more humanistic psychologists, Erikson has a generally optimistic view of potential. Unlike these other thinkers, however, he is clear about the possibility of failure—and this failure is one that increasingly is a consequence of the misuse of my own freedom.
The summit of human development is ego integrity. At this stage I come (or not) to embrace the totality of my life with all its successes and failures. Part of this embrace is the appreciative acceptance of my own contingency, that my life is the product not only on my genetic inheritance and free decisions, but also of factors over which I have no control (like the culture in which I am born and raised) and which could in fact have been different.
But I can also come to a point in which I refuse to be thankful for my life; I can deny or resent my failures just as I can overvalue or minimize my successes. Whatever the concrete form my lack of acceptance takes, it is grounded in a refusal of my own contingency as the condition of possibility for my own life. It is here, in my exercise (or not) of what Erikson calls the virtue of wisdom, that I have the opportunity to find not only myself, but also to reach out in beyond the limits of my own life and embrace others in compassion.
While Erikson's work fall short of the Church's understanding of theosis (deification) as the goal of human life, his work nevertheless articulates much of the human dimension of this process. In doing so, I think, Erikson's work has a valuable contribution to make to Orthodox pastoral care.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

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