Book Jacket cover of "Outliving the Self" by John Kotre

Outliving the Self 
How We Live on in Future Generations

W.W. Norton Paperback, 1996
Johns Hopkins University Press Hardcover, 1984 
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If Make It Count describes a path, this book describes the lives of people who walk it.  It's the one I used in teaching a seminar on generational legacies.  Eight life stories, each followed by an interpretation, bring out the subtleties and complexities of the generative experience.

"A study of lives that honors their complexity,the ironies and ambiguities and paradoxes that won't let go of us as we go through time, find our various destinies, and thereby (one hopes and prays) join ourselves to others, making with one another those bonds of trust and affection that, in turn, give us membership in a world beyond the one we as individuals inhabit."
-- Robert Coles, M.D., Harvard University,
Author of The Spiritual Life of Children and Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize

"One of the pioneering ventures in the creation
of a narrative psychology."
-- Bertram Cohler, University of Chicago, 
Co-Author of The Essential Other

"Will move us with the loving care of its stories and their telling." 
-- Steven Tipton, Reviewer for Commonweal

"Since these stories are true, they make the consoling point that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but can also be more encouraging."
-- John Donohue, Reviewer for America

Table of Contents

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Part I: The Setting

    1.    A Theory of Generativity
    2.    The Changing Context of Generativity
    3.    Life-Storytelling


Part II: The Stories of Four Women

    4.    Mirror, Mirror
               INTERPRETATION: Damage and Nourishment
    5.    Journey into the Lie
               INTERPRETATION: Hidden Legacies; Second Chances
    6.    A Chosen Life
               INTERPRETATION: Death; Caring for a Culture
    7.    In a Dream Castle
               INTERPRETATION: Silences; How Memories Speak


Part III: The Stories of Four Men

    8.   Being a Daddy
               INTERPRETATION: Reworking the Heritage; Agency, 
               Communication, and Parenthood
    9.   The Message
               INTERPRETATION: The Transformation of Defect; 
               Validating the Self
               INTERPRETATION: The Telling of Trauma; "Good" 
               Stories and Generative Power    
  11.   The Cup
               INTERPRETATION: Remembered Enchantment; 
               Lives Made Fabulous


Part IV: Conclusion

  12.   The Culture Connection



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Preface to the 1996 Edition of Outliving the Self

I have just now, for the first time, taught a college course devoted entirely to the idea of generativity and using the method of narrative psychology.  "Generativity" is a word we are starting to hear more of, for it speaks, as Robert Coles writes in his foreword, to "our very nature as the creature of awareness who knows that an end to this life will come."  The word itself was coined by Erik H. Erikson in 1950 to denote a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.  It has since been extended, too broadly for clarity's sake, to mean any kind of care or responsibility for others--too broadly because the essence the term seeks to name is propagation, reproduction, fertility in the deepest and most human sense of the word.  Generativity is about care and responsibility (and other actions and creations of ours) that move down the generational chain and connect to a future.


The course I taught trafficked in stories, which is all that I mean by the "method" of narrative psychology.  For a given class, students would read one of the life stories in this book; we would discuss it; and I would supplement the discussion with research related to story themes.  The sequencing of stories formed the skeleton of the course, enabling it to stand and bear weight.  The heroes, heroines, and villains in the stories became its heart and soul.  I watch with surprise and pleasure as one narrative after another gave flesh to abstract material--and, in a curious way, connected students to each other.  The method did indeed build up a body. 


Now this was not your ordinary collection of undergraduates.  Most were over sixty-five and retired, though there were a few youngsters in middle age.  Many had already received their college diplomas; a few had advanced degrees.  I was amazed at how deeply they empathized with the variety of lives in this volume, with these people of "all sorts and conditions."  They talked about identifying with a character "too closely," about being "upset" or "depressed" as a result, or sometimes "healed" and "inspired."  One would share a sense of loneliness with a story's protagonist, or a commitment to God.  Another would look up to the way a woman had carved out her own role in life.  Still another would fill in the blanks of a "ghostly, shadowy figure" with her own imagination.  When experiences were far removed from their own, they wondered about the portrait I had drawn.  Was it truth or fiction?  And they drew lessons, lessons about courage and survival, about the resilience of the human spirit, about evil that must not be buried in our memories.  "It must be pulled out and looked at from time to time, lest we forget and fall prey, either as victim or instrument," wrote one student at the end of the term.  And in some cases the stories prompted an impulse to tell a story in return--their own--and to write it down for children and grandchildren.


The book that elicited this response has had an unusual history.  A week after Outliving the Self was published by The Johns Hopkins University Press in 1984, I received word that a large grant to make a public television series had come through.  Everything else had to be dropped.  There was no time to think further about generativity or to follow up with articles and talks.  I laid what I had just written aside and forgot about it for quite a while. Outliving the Self received some thoughtful reviews, and it was the happy occasion of my meeting other psychologists interested in generativity, but it sold only about a hundred copies a year.


Then, in 1995, the Journal of Aging Studies published a ten-year retrospective on it (I am grateful to its organizer, Harry Berman).  Interest in generativity had been picking up.  At the time I wrote Outliving the Self, psychologists were publishing about one article a year on the subject.  Now it's about seven or eight--still a trickle, really, but a trickle becoming a stream.  Using a variety of methods, researchers have explored different types and features of generativity, the timing of its expression, and its relationship to personality traits and to gender.  A few have pursued its connection to biological infertility.  Some have applied it in clinical settings.  Articles are forthcoming on generativity among gay and lesbian adults and among survivors of genocide.  Reflective pieces are being written on its historical, philosophical, and ethical aspects.  And then there's the longitudinal research.  Is the expression of generativity in adulthood dependent on the childhood experiences that Erikson called trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry?  Yes, but to a surprisingly slight extent.  In the language of psychological science, our life course has proven to be "plastic"; in that of religion, capable of "redemption" and "transformation."  We can become generative in adulthood even though our life did not get off to a good start.


It is important that this stream of research swell and gain momentum, not only to increase our knowledge of a critical human quality, but to bring it to the public eye.  As I write this preface, the first of America's 76 million baby boomers has just turned 50, an age when people become aware of their mortality and sense the possibility of moving from Me to Beyond Me.  Soon this massive cohort will accelerate a demographic trend that is deeper, of longer duration, and global in nature--the aging of populations in the world's developed countries.  In 1900, only one out of every 25 Americans was 65 or older.  Today, one out of 8 or 9 is that old; and by 2030, when the last of the boomers has crossed 65, one out of 5 will be.  And there are countries--Japan, Sweden, and Canada--where populations are even older than they are in the United States.  In 1994, one of them--Italy--became the first in the world to have more people over 65 than under 15.  What takes place in our aging societies will depend in great measure on what takes place in those doing the aging, and specifically on the condition of their generativity.


I am grateful to The Johns Hopkins University Press and W. W. Norton for cooperating in this effort to bring the idea of generativity to a wider audience.  How appropriate that this book end up with the publishers who even now care for Erikson's legacy--and that it be introduced by Robert Coles, whose own book on Erikson was instrumental, many years ago, in steering my work in the direction it has taken. 


I have changed but one thing in this edition, adding a paragraph on the combination of "agency" and "communion" near the end of the first chapter.  This was done in response to some of the research mentioned above.  The rest of what I wrote in 1984 still rings true to me.  If I were writing the book today, I might begin differently--with a story or two, say, before getting to the theoretical material in Part I.  But you can do that yourself with no loss of direction, and indeed I would recommend it.  For it is the life stories in this book that will remain distinctive as interest in generativity grows.


The book's final story, in fact, left an image that endured in all of us in that memorable class.  An old man from Sicily whom I called Chris Vitullo spoke of a cup that you take things out of and put things into.  It made us think of what had been put in our cup: the devotion of a mother, the love of a Creator--or nothing.  Or worse, something poisonous.  Do we really get what we deserve in life? someone wondered.  Are we destined to put back what we received?  And do we believe what the story's narrator did: "I gotta leave in the cup for those that are dear to me"?  His was a better definition of generativity than any psychologist has yet provided. 

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