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 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, Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize

"One of the pioneering ventures in the
creation of a narrative psychology."
-- Bertram Cohler, University of Chicago

"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

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


From the Preface to the 1996 edition

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'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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