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Life Well-Lived:Part 1--Fulfillment or Despair

Updated: Feb 21

What does it mean to have a life well-lived? It’s pretty clear from a spiritual perspective, but how do we break it down so it is clear from a practical, down-to-earth reality? Also, why is it important? Today’s blog is the first in a series on what a well-lived life looks like and how to live that life.

Let’s begin with Erik Erikson. He was a famous psychologist who postulated that humans emotionally evolve through eight stages from birth to death. Each stage has a particular crisis or challenge that must be faced to step into the next stage successfully. We will focus on the eighth and last stage, Fulfillment vs Despair.

Imagine you are ninety years old and looking back on your life. Will you be pleased with what you have done with your life, or will you feel unfulfilled, unresolved, full of regrets, and wondering why you wasted so much of your life? We have all met the elderly grandfather and grandmother who still have a twinkle in their eye. Their age does not seem to define how young they feel inside. Their bodies may be bowed with time, but their outlook on life is unbowed. They have a legacy that inspires love, faith, and hope. And laughter. Sure, there are tears from time to time, but they are just part of the normal human ups and downs of life.

And we have met the other old people, the ones who are angry, shut down, depressed, fearful, and bitter. They may be stuck in the past. They may have spent a lifetime running from their emotions, problems, and issues through drugs, alcohol, work, sex, or unrelenting crises and drama. They may have failed as partners, parents and grandparents. They may have a lifetime of regrets and not much laughter. If they have any self-awareness, they will understand how they have wasted their precious time on earth. However, most don’t exhibit that awareness and instead stew on how unfair life has been to them. They feel like victims of life and that they had little part in their own destinies.

Which elder do you want to be? It’s pretty much a no-brainer, but for those under 90, how do we get to Erikson’s fulfilled elder? You have some clues. Look at any role models of those people in your life. What are the traits and characteristics that make them who they are? If they are still relatively young, what are the traits and characteristics that make them who they will become? It could be a parent, an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a boss, or a friend. What do you admire about them?

We might start with a quote from my book, A Fresh Cup of Tolerance, discussing heaven and hell.

"Truly, we have seen people who manage to bring a piece of the Kingdom of God into their lives. Despite the vicissitudes and perils of life on this planet, they hold hell at bay and enjoy a bit of heavenly waters in their lives. It is not that they have perfect, unmarred lives. It is simply that they have learned to co-create a better flow, a more positive mindset, and a way of turning hardships into lessons and victories rather than tragedies and defeats. Contrarily, we have seen people who have transported their lives to a living hell. It takes a lot to change their mindset, as some of the guiding principles of being in hell include being stuck, closed, angry, and afraid. It is not a prescription for healthy change and growth and requires significant effort to overcome the illusion."[1]

As a counselor and in my own life, what I have found is that these fulfilled people managed to grow into their Adult and stay there most of the time rather than let their wounded inner children run amuck and try to manage their lives as grownups. When the wounded inner children are in charge, no matter how great and smart the kid was, they are still just children or teens. They just do not have the maturity or life experience to handle adult relationships and issues. You may even notice that people who consistently live in their Adult are more rare than we would like, but it probably explains much of the world’s problems.

In any event, what are the traits and characteristics of these Adults?

  • They do not thrive on drama and chaos, but generally appear more at peace and centered.

  • They are noted for kindness, sharing, and generosity. Generosity is not always about money.

  • They seem confident, secure, and comfortable with themselves, what Abraham Maslow called self-actualized.

  • They exhibit compassion, understanding, and empathy. As the Native Americans would say, “They can walk a mile in the other person’s moccasins.” They are generally open-minded and nonjudgmental.

  • They do not see vulnerability as a weakness but as a strength. It is them just being themselves, genuine and authentic. In our spiritual center, we would call it being in our “I AM,” our highest God self.

  • They are cup-half-full people and are generally positive.

  • They are not afraid of their emotions, even painful ones such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear. They face them and work them through over time.

  • They are good at giving and receiving.

  • They handle adversity with relative patience and calm. This, too, shall pass.

  • They know how to love—as partners, parents, grandparents, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, friends, neighbors. They have a love for humanity in all her variations. They welcome diversity and remember that Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, and many other spiritual teachers told us to love the stranger as well as our neighbors. Jesus even told us to love our neighbors even as we love ourselves. (Matthew 25:35, Lev 19:33-34, Mark 12:31, Muhammad’s Last Sermon) Their love is not contractual and conditional but unconditional.

  • They know how to trust when warranted. Erikson called this “healthy trust.” They have worked through and moved beyond petty jealousies and insecurities. At the same time, there is a place for “healthy mistrust.” They can discern who is trustworthy and who is not through long experience and good intuition.

  • They avoid gossip and petty arguments. They have learned to “pick their battles” and “not sweat the small stuff.” They don’t have time for bs and nonsense, especially if it is hurtful to others or themselves.

  • They are thoughtful and mindful when it comes to other’s feelings and needs.

  • They are unafraid to hold themselves accountable and apologize when appropriate.

  • They are direct, truthful, and straightforward in their communications.

Have we just described the perfect man or woman? Probably, but that is not the point. This is not about perfection. In fact, these people will be the first to acknowledge they are less than perfect and are still learning, growing, and evolving. However, those who embody or aspire to these traits of healthy adulthood will someday look back on a legacy of love and fulfillment as they reach Erikson’s last stage. Needless to say, what kind of world would we live in if we all reached high and lived life well?

Your choice. Who do you want to become?



Rev. Dr. Tom Norris

[Note: In future blogs, we will delve deeper into the various traits and characteristics outlined in today’s blog.]


[1] Norris, 80-81.

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