Identity, Erikson, and the Third Phase of Life


I remember in the ’60s being fascinated by the writing of Erik Erikson.

I’m not sure if he’s read much today. But there I was last week in the quiet of my new home, Portland, Maine, in the quiet of Longfellow Books, gazing fondly at the titles: Young Man Luther, Gandhi’s Truth, Childhood and Society.

Beyond the books I had warm, appreciative feelings for the man.

His many books portrayed exemplary persons. He did not stall with the lame and the halt.

In the ’50s and ’60s, while a practicing psychoanalyst in Western Massachusetts, he inaugurated the fashion of picking out stages of life, describing not only the tensions of early years, à la Freud, but other tensions in the transitions into adolescence, into maturity, or into old age.

No doubt my pause in that Longfellow’s aisle was longer than usual.  I’m in transition, and perhaps an Eriksonian one: a move into what friends call “the third phase” — life after careers and child-rearing recede.

images-4Actually, as I remember it, Erikson proposes a schema of eight stages of equilibrium — of relative stability between fluid and sometimes rocky identity-shifts.

The grand old man (as I remember him) introduced the very idea of identity crisis. Perhaps more important than crisis, he traced healthy, wholesome, and productive ways persons negotiate inevitable bumps and bruises hiking through life.

His was a psychology of well-being. He portrayed exemplary persons. He did not stall with the lame and the halt.


Just so you know, I have two tiny portraits, miniatures, at hand. There’s a quick sketch of Erik Erikson’s own issues of identity. He had a formidable task, weaving Jewish and Christian strands — Danish, German, and American strands — and darkness around whom to take as his father, and what take he should have on his mother.

Then, almost as an afterthought, there’s a short impressionistic miniature of my becoming “retired” with time for leisurely browses in bookshops. I’ll try to focus the excitement of life’s third phase — Erikson’s stage eight — as I enter it.


Erikson emerged from an amazingly complex childhood. It’s a fascinating story I had largely forgotten, but have managed to retrieve from here and there.

He had a formidable task: to mesh Jewish and Christian identity-strands — Danish, German, and American identity-strands — and to negotiate the fraught matter of present-absent fathers.

He was born out of wedlock, in 1902, to Karla Abrahamsen. daughter of prominent Danish Jewish parents. His biological father was a Dane known mysteriously only as “Erik.” Through his early school years he was Erik Homberger, taking on the name of his mother’s new husband. Even in maturity, he was refused any knowledge of his biological father.

Raised an orthodox Jew, he was teased, in Germany, by Christian classmates for being Jewish, and at temple-school for being tall, blond, and blue-eyed—a “goy.” Think of the tensions he negotiated.

He had three fathers, we might say, one completely unknown, one known only in his earliest years, and a third, his German stepfather who, for all his kindness, could not fill the gap created by a man who had abandoned him and whose identity had been absolutely erased.

He had a Danish mother, now German, twice married, and carrying the blemish of bearing a child out of wedlock. His blond hair and blue eyes raised suspicions. He was accepted neither as fully Jewish nor fully German.

In his twenties, he set aside early artistic adventures (for a while he had wandered as a landscape painter). He traveled to Vienna, dropping in to see Freud. He entered analysis with Anna Freud. Psychoanalysis, of course, focuses on ameliorating inner conflict.

Erikson converted to Christianity in 1930, upon his marriage to the daughter of an Episcopalian minister. The ceremonies were Christian, Jewish, and civil.

imagesBy the mid-thirties Hitler made Germany and Austria uninhabitable, and Erik Homberger, by Nazi protocols a Jew, emigrated to America and was hired as a child psychologist — the first — by Boston’s Children’s Hospital. He signed in under the name Erik Erikson. He then faced the question of what it was to become American.

It was a formidable task sorting through these inherited and adopted social and cultural traditions, and mulling over their imprints, longings, and promises.

Later, as he began to write about stages and transitions he would see this as an always unfinished project, and frame it not in terms of treating sickness, neurosis, or pathology, but in terms of creative, artistic endeavor.

He was saddled with an unusually complicated inheritance at an unusually tumultuous time in history—a kind of swirl from which to extract and fashion a productive equilibrium.


portlandThis all came bubbling up as I paused in the aisles of Longfellow Books, near Monument Square. Why?

I suspect there’s always a subtle interplay, as I begin to write, between two sides of a single coin.

There’s a theme or topic that accosts me — in this case, Erickson’s inheritance of complex identity issues.

Then there are strands of myself implicit or pre-conscious in my appreciation of, obsession with, or interest in the topic I grapple with explicitly. In this post you get both sides of the coin.

My emerging life fuels my fascination with Erickson’s emerging life as a complex young man, and the explicit story of his weaving of identity no doubt fuels my more implicit sense of what unfolds for me here and now.


I’ve recently moved to a hilltop, old port, and peninsular city on the Maine Coast. Portland feels like a miniature Boston, a tenth the size, and comfortably relaxed.

There’s plenty of good music and good eating, some of it imported from the Bay State. There’s little traffic, and commanding views of Casco Bay and its islands.

I have leisure to listen to the everyday and to savor it

There are mysterious tidal flats that appear and disappear with the pull of the stars. Various ships and ferries, big and little, enter and depart the local waters, day and night. There are good neighbors and friends and musical partners. The taciturn Yankee seems a thing of the past.

I live a slow-paced small-city life among people like me, among retired folk, or folk in life’s “third phase” — portland-mainenot retired, but engaged in new ways. And from varied backgrounds, fascinating former lives, just now come alive for me.

One meets at the community garden, or on paths overlooking the Bay, or at a local restaurant or coffee shop, or at concert intermissions.

There’s no rushing to and from the office, or writing for a deadline, or running half-marathons, or picking up kids after school or soccer practice — no go-go-go.

Things are slower. I listen to the everyday and savor it.

I have time for music, social dinners, easy walks, and leisurely writing.

Is this an Eriksonian identity-package taking shape? Probably so. But it utterly lacks the turmoil of adolescence or the angst of early years of child-raising or career-building. And if my foretastes be trusted, the outcome couldn’t be more different. And welcome.

The third phase, thus far, is wonderful.

—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

See his Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009.

Credits: The best account of Erikson’s life, writing, cultural sources and impact is Lawrence J. Friedman, Identity Architect: A Biography of Erik Erikson, New York: Scribners 1999. See also, “Erik Erikson: Artist of Moral-religious development,” in Kierkegaard’s Influence on the Social Sciences, ed. Jon Stewart, Ashgate, 2011, pp. 81-90.

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