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The boy as mentor of the man

16 September 2016

Anne Holmes assesses unfashionable theory thoughtfully revisited

The Resourceful Self: And a little child shall lead them
Donald Capps
The Lutterworth Press £17



Still Growing: The creative self in older adulthood
Donald Capps
The Lutterworth Press £17



PUBLISHED in the same year, these books explore the developmental challenges of the first and last years of life. In each of these books, Donald Capps expands on the psycho-social model of human development of Erik H. Erikson, a Freudian psychoanalyst who was himself analysed by Anna Freud in Vienna in the 1930s.

After training in art, Erikson found his professional identity when working with children in Vienna, grateful to be accepted by the Freudian circle. Later, he and his wife, Joan, moved first to Copenhagen, then to the United States. His model of life-stages was one of the most influential contributions to psychology of the last century.

In The Resourceful Self, Capps describes the polarities attached to each life stage by Erikson and adds his own contrast between the melancholy self and the resourceful self. Having outlined relevant ideas by Freud and Erikson in the first three chapters, Capps devotes a chapter each to four “primordial” resources: humour, play, dreams, and hope, showing how they help children to confront life’s difficulties and challenges.

Capps identifies an additional polarity. He locates the original split between the melancholy self and the resourceful self in early childhood, as a result of the child’s loss of the early unconditional regard of the mother, or fall from paradise.

Readers familiar with Justine Allain-Chapman’s Resilient Pastors (SPCK, 2012) will recognise the idea that adversity can contribute to healing and growth. The central argument of this book is that the resourceful self has its origins in childhood. The subtitle, And a little child shall lead them, is a conscious reference to the way in which Jesus valued the spiritual understanding of children.

In Still Growing, Capps narrates his surprise discovery of a younger version of himself as a mentor to his older adult self. He suggests two additional stages to the Erikson model which are, in part, a consequence of his personal link with both Erik and Joan Erikson.

Modestly offered, these give a framework for a creative response to the challenges of older adulthood. He makes a direct connection between the child within and the later life stages, so that it makes sense to read these two books sequentially. He refers to the adaptability of older adults to the decrease in mobility and other physical impairment, and highlights the growth of an integrated self as one way of describing wisdom. At the end there is a surprise suggestion that loneliness can inspire creativity, as it seems to Capps to have provoked God’s creation of humanity.

Notwithstanding the fact that Erikson’s model of life stages has gone out of fashion in some psychodynamic-counselling training courses, the deep knowledge and affirmation of Erikson’s thinking demonstrated by Capps encourage the reader to take it seriously. His privileged access to both Erik and Joan Erikson gives authenticity to his commentary on Erikson’s work, and especially to his particular way of looking at things.

One minor irritation is the plethora of dictionary definitions, but even they contribute usefully to the development of his arguments.

Overall, these two books offer useful insight into Erikson’s thinking, and a fresh way of presenting Erikson’s commitment to the truth of the healing power of self-knowledge, seen through a Freudian lens.


The Revd Anne Holmes, an ex-NHS mental-health chaplain, is a psychotherapist and self-supporting minister in Oxford diocese.

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