The American Identity

By Lisa Stein

Productive, caring American tell life stories of redemption

After studying and writing about America's highly generative adults for more than two decades, Dan McAdams discovered a whole new perspective on his work almost by accident.

McAdams, professor of human development and social policy with a joint appointment in the department of psychology, was presenting his research at a scientific conference in the Netherlands in summer 2000. As he was describing how almost all the life stories of especially caring, productive adults he'd heard had emphasized a theme of suffering and redemption, he received an unexpected comment.

"Professor McAdams," observed a woman in the audience, "this is very interesting, but these life stories you describe, they seem so, well, American."

McAdams was taken aback. He had assumed that highly generative people in many different societies would tell similar stories in their efforts to form identities and make sense of their lives. But after a while he decided that the woman was onto something. He realized that his research might not apply totally to people in other societies. Eventually he concluded that the life stories of highly generative American adults reveal as much about American society as about the individuals themselves, that in fact they exemplify many cherished ideas in American heritage. He came up with a name for the story that highly generative Americans tell about their lives: "the redemptive self."

The refrain of redemption
Five years later, McAdams looks forward to the publication in September of his new book, The Redemptive Self: Stories American Live By, by Oxford University Press. In the book McAdams shows how the motif of redemption, which he defines as "deliverance from suffering to a better world," distinguishes the life stories of those Americans he calls "generativity superstars" - adults who give their all in tending to the well-being of future generations - from those of their less generative counterparts. He traces the redemptive motif to several influences in American history. Along the way he asserts that the idea of the redemptive self, while not perfect, is important in promoting psychological health and maturity in Americans.

Simply put, McAdams posits that while generativity is universal, the redemptive self is characteristically American. "Psychologically, generativity is a basic thing," McAdams explains. "Adults in all societies have to care for the next generation; otherwise, society would go to hell in a hand basket. They raise children, pass on family traditions, vote and participate in the political process - things that aren't glamorous. In all societies generativity is hard work, and people need a good story that supports their generativity.

"But the redemptive self is a particular story that is told by particularly generative American adults," he continues. "They have this sense of privilege, of being special. They also hold the belief that bad things will happen, but still have this hopeful, optimistic view of the future."

"Our most admirable, mature and caring adults make sense of their lives through a story that's a powerful redemptive narrative, and we would do well to borrow those themes and appropriate them into ou
By Lisa Stein