Table of Contents
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|3||Prologue: A Life Story Made in America
Beginning September 11, 2001, William Langewiesche spent 9 months at the site of the World Trade Center disaster. He observed and interviewed firefighters, construction workers, engineers, police officers, and paid volunteers who cleared the debris and dug through the rubble in search of survivors. "Within hours the collapse [of the towers], as rescuers rushed in and resources were marshaled," Langweische later wrote, "the disaster was smothered in an exuberant and distinctively American embrace..."
|15||Chapter 1: Redemption and the American Soul
As Elliot Washington tells it, his life is a story of redemption. The story begins with death. Elliot's father dies before Elliot is even born. Economically strapped to begin with, the family falls into deeper poverty. While his mother struggles to make a living as a seamstress, Elliot is bounced around from grandmother to aunt to older sister, with each trying to provide him with the care and discipline a boy needs. The apartments the young boy sleeps in are infested with rats and roaches...
|45||Chapter 2: The Generative Adult
In the beginning, it was no different than it is today. From the moment life first appeared, life demanded continuity from one generation to the next. The task has always been, and always will be, to pass it on. To pass life on. To pass life on in our own image. “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.”1 The plants and the fruit trees came equipped with their own seeds in the book of Genesis, promising continuity from one generation to the next.
|74||Chapter 3: Life Stories
In a famous quote, F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked, “there are no second acts in American lives.” With all due respect to a great writer, Fitzgerald could not have been more wrong. Ever since Benjamin Franklin, Americans have been reinventing themselves in astonishing ways and producing second, third, and even fourth acts. We see it in Bob Love. We see it in American fiction, biography, and folklore. We see it on talk shows and in the magazines.
|101||Chapter 4: The Chosen People
The American sense of being the chosen people combines easily with Americans’ traditional belief in individualism. “One’s self I sing, a simple separate person,” proclaimed Walt Whitman.14 Since the time of de Tocqueville, Americans have perceived themselves, and been perceived by others, as the champions of the individual self. As much as national destiny, as much as the American institutions that distinguish this land from all others, Americans have traditionally held up the individual American man or woman as worthy of praise and affirmation. “Is not a man better than a town?” asked Ralph Waldo Emerson.15
|119||Chapter 5: My Good Inner Self: From Emerson to Oprah
What’s your problem? Substance abuse? A broken relationship? A failed business? You’re not rich enough? Or free enough? Or happy enough? You feel your life lacks meaning? You’re not getting the love and the success that you want and deserve? You don’t like yourself?
It sounds as if you need professional help.
|145||Chapter 6: God Bless America
Highly generative adults rarely lie awake at night wondering whether or not God exists or if they’ve got the world figured out right. They don’t seem to struggle much about the correctness of their viewpoints, even though they tolerate others’ points of view. They believe that their values are clear, consistent, and coherent, and have pretty much always been so. Their life stories suggest moral clarity and steadfastness.31
|171||Chapter 7: Black (and White)
Like most Americans, I grew up a racist. It was not that the elementary-school children of the second-generation immigrants living in Gary, Indiana in the early 1960s hated black people. We just did not quite consider them human. In our primitive minds, it was as if we and they were two different species.
|213||Chapter 8: Contaminated Plots, Vicious Circles
It is virtually impossible to be 30 years old or more and not own at least one contamination sequence in your life story. No period of the life course, furthermore, seems immune from the possibilities of contamination. Say, you build a model airplane, take it to class for “show and tell,” and the class bully breaks it in half. Say, you are deeply in love with the perfect man or woman, and then your lover dumps you. Say, you win a high honor in your profession, and then your mother dies before she can see you receive your award.
|243||Chapter 9: When Redemption Fails
I come now not to bury the redemptive self, but I do not wish to idolize it either. We need to step further back from the life story that highly generative American adults tend to tell. We need to see it from a greater cultural distance in order to afford a more objective evaluation. Let us, therefore, cast a cool, analytical eye upon a way of telling a good American life that seems so, well, good. It is not all good.
|274||Chapter 10: Culture, Narrative, and Self
What is the relationship between the individual self and culture? In the minds of many Americans, there is little relationship at all.
|293||Epilogue: An American's Confessions and Final Thoughts
My perspective on the redemptive self is both admiring (Chapter 2) and critical (Chapter 9). Like many highly generative American adults, I have formulated a life story in which the childhood protagonist does indeed experience an early advantage. Mine took the form of a lucky break, at least as my father told it, regarding my premature birth: “Danny, you had a 50/50 chance to live!” I think he made it up.
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