Thursday, October 24, 2013

Plotkin Describes Life Stages

Photo by AdamSelwood
As I move through the lifespan, I can more clearly see the various roles people play.

Stage theory in psychology provides a number of ways for describing these roles.

Theorists such as Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and Carl Jung have already described how people move through these stages as they age.

But developmental psychologists today are dedicated to finding even more ways to describe and interpret age-based social roles. 

I find Bill Plotkin's work in this area quite fascinating.

He has a strong foundation in Carl Jung's archetype theory. However, Plotkin also draws inspiration from nature, from non-industrialized peoples, from personal narrative, and from interviewing people across the life span.

He also looks at growth of the individual alone as well as the individual embedded in a social context.

Based on his research and analysis, Plotkin developed a developmental model or "Wheel of Life," which he explains in his book Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. In 516 pages, Plotkin describes 8 life stages using images (listed in parenthesis) drawn from non-industrialized societies.
  1. Early Childhood (The Innocent in the Nest)
  2. Middle Childhood (The Explorer in the Garden)
  3. Early Adolescence (The Thespian at the Oasis)
  4. Late Adolescence (The Wanderer in the Cocoon)
  5. Early Adulthood (The Soul Apprentice at the Wellspring)
  6. Late Adulthood (The Artisan in the Wild Orchard)
  7. Early Elderhood (The Master in the Grove of Elders)
  8. Late Elderhood (The Sage in the Mountain Cave)
As a midlife person in Stage 6 "Late Adulthood or The Artisan in the Wild Orchard," I find myself looking in both directions across the lifespan.  I see my children growing and developing in stages I have already completed. I am watching my peers move away from early adulthood zeal and into midlife negotiations with the realities of life.

And as a gerontologist--and as a member of an extended family--I have been watching late life adults and elders make peace with the challenges of aging while they also explore ways to develop further and contribute to the generations below them.

As people move from one life stage into the next, they usually face a spiritual crisis. 

After acclimating to one life stage, it can be very difficult to transition to the next.  People feel a lot of pain and suffering when they hold too tightly to old roles and responsibilities while denying the opportunities available to them in the current moment.  It's difficult to see the next stage until we inhabit it completely. Consequently, chaos, confusion, and disorientation often dominate during these transitional times. 

Much has been written about teenagers in angst, young adults striving to "find" themselves, adults experiencing a midlife crisis and older adults facing late-life depression. Yes, each of these periods of great tension cause pain. But these transitional times can offer moments of great renewal, creativity, and rebirth.

How do we deal with emotional, social and spiritual chaos brought on by role change?

Sometimes people pick up dysfunctional methods such as addiction, depression, obsessions, avoidance or anger. Each person has to discover a path of peace. But admitting that transitioning require attention is a good first step. 

Plotkin provides an expanded vocabulary for how to embrace the opportunities of each life stage. He finds his inspiration through archetypes and through nature.  Reading and rereading his book Nature and the Human Soul gives me a chance to meditate on the challenges and opportunities presented in each life stage. It also helps me support others who are living in the "no man's land" between stages.  

To follow up on this topic of spiritual crises in the face of life transitions, I will share my thoughts about the last three stages in Plotkin's Wheel of Life. Once a month, I will describe the stages salient to me as a gerontologist. Look for a post on late adulthood in November, early elderhood in December and late elderhood in January.

May you have a great journey on whichever road you now travel in the Wheel of Life.



  1. This make sense...transitions are hard. There's a lot to think about here. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Carol. May the road rise to meet you,
    May the wind be always at your back. . . .