New WorldLibrary, 2008

ISBN: 978-1577315513

Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


Depth psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin, well known for his earlier book, Soulcraft, begins this one with a quote from Thomas Berry, a poignant poem from Drew Dellinger, five succinct sentences outlining the mess our species has made of the planet in the last two hundred years and the following statement: “True adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement in Western and Westernized societies and genuine elderhood nearly nonexistent.”

As someone who has been writing and teaching about ‘genuine elderhood’ for a quarter of a century, I am the first to agree with this latter claim. And my observations, both personal and clinical, over many decades have led me to a rueful acceptance of the former also. But as an optimist, I believe this is finally starting to change. We are beginning to ‘grow up,’ more and more true elders are starting to appear on the scene and this wonderful book can only hasten that process.

People have been creating psycho-social templates for human development for at least twenty-five centuries. These range from Confucius in China, who divided the life cycle into six stages and Solon, in ancient Greece, with his ten stages, right through to Freud, Jung, Erikson and various others in our own times. But I don’t think anyone has ever done it as completely or as thoroughly—or as satisfyingly—as Plotkin.

His model, which was 25 years in the making, is in the shape of a wheel, divided into quadrants and then again into eight stages, he calls ‘Eco-Soulcentric Development.’ It describes not only the eight major stages of healthy (soulcentric) development that are grounded in interaction with Nature (within and without) but also the trajectory of the dysfunctional (egocentric) development that has become so common in today’s materialistic society. Whereas soulcentric stages are numbered from Stage 1 (infancy) through Stage 8 (late old age), the chronologically equivalent stages of egocentric development have a parallel sequence that he calls 1, 2,3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 3E and 3F. In other words, some people never complete the inner tasks of adolescence.

Using a vivid set of double metaphors, Plotkin describes, in rich detail, the tasks, challenges and outcomes of each stage, the archetypal energies that govern each of them and the gifts that each stage enables us to offer to our communities and to the world in general. And like those others, from Confucius to Erikson, he includes a lot of useful advice for parents in guiding their children through the early stages.

Since the author himself, at the time of writing this book, had not yet reached elderhood, in order to describe Stage 7 (‘The Master in the Grove of Elders’) he relied heavily on in-depth interviews with Joanna Macy. And for Stage 8 (‘The Sage in the Mountain Cave’) he turned to our own beloved sage Thomas Berry.

You are sure to recognize yourself somewhere on Plotkin’s wheel, just as I did. I found the book extraordinarily helpful and interesting and I highly recommend it.