Professor Ralph Rowbottom & Nicholas Spicer
This paper suggests that in general, eight distinct stages exist in human life. In identifying and exploring each stage attention is drawn to the particular biological, psychological or social factors that appear to precipitate or define it. In what we believe to be a novel and important step, the idea is developed that each new stage brings its own characteristic conflict; one that can only be successfully surmounted through some synthesis of the opposed forces which the person concerned typically then faces.
‘Without contraries is no progression’ William Blake
We should start by acknowledging a poetic description of genius, centuries old: Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, from ‘infant mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms‘, through schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, and pantaloon, to the ultimate stage ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’. In the last hundred years or so various more-scientific portrayals have been attempted. Major statements include Freud’s well-known divisions of early development: oral, anal, phallic, and, at puberty, the full-genital. There is Jung’s powerful image of life as a whole in two great phases: the rising sun of early years coming slowly to its zenith in the late thirties, then its gradual setting in the years thereafter. There is Erik Erikson’s extension of the Freudian scheme into a comprehensive life-long system in no less than eight distinct stages.
Erikson’s picture is bold and stimulating, but for us lacks at many points a simple credibility and an obvious correspondence to social as well as psychological realities. We offer a new picture of the typical human life-span, also in eight parts or stages as shown in the following Table .
The Stages of Life
|Stage||Name||Usual Starting Age|
|6||Young adult||about 20|
|7||Mature adult||late 20’s|
|8||Ageing adult||about 60|
Each new stage has its typical concerns, activities and problems, and its typical starting age, but adds to, rather than totally replaces, the stages before it. Most importantly each stage has, as we shall see, its characteristic conflict, its seemingly insoluble dilemma which must nevertheless be resolved or surmounted in some way before the next stage can be effectively tackled. Naturally, none of us ever perfectly negotiates this great obstacle course, this growth-by-problem-solving. Infantile dilemmas persist; old work remains still to be done; priests, counsellors, and therapists continue to find business!
Stage 1: The Babe-in-Arms
The new-born baby lies in its mother’s arms, or its cot. Often it sleeps at peace. Sometimes it bawls and screams: suddenly everything is badness, pain, hell (is it hunger? wind? burning skin?). Sometimes, blessedly, heaven is restored. Literally sweating with pleasure, it sucks in warmth, cream, and sweetness. At first, all is a ‘blooming, buzzing, confusion’. The new-born creature does not know its mother as such, or itself as such. And it does not even know exactly what it wants. During these first months it must gradually learn to focus its desires so that, with the first crude signs, it can begin to indicate its specific needs, this or that. On the other hand, it must also learn to accept an objective world which impinges upon it with implacable logic: when mother does in fact choose to feed it, or change its napkin, or cuddle it.
Which is to win: the primacy of its spontaneous needs, or acceptance of whatever the great world chooses to offer at any time, cruel or kind? Here is the first and deepest dilemma. Somehow a synthesis must be achieved (though naturally, the baby is not conscious of things in these terms). In these early months the immediate aim is to create between mother and child, a good rhythmic pattern of demand and feeding, of ingestion and digestion, of activity and sleep. In this way the child is helped to start learning a most basic and precious thing, confident interaction in the world. In more general terms this means learning to develop a proper flow in life, constantly focusing needs as they arise within, and matching them as best as possible to circumstances and opportunities as they occur without. (It corresponds to what Erikson describes as the building of ‘basic trust’.) Failing one way in this task, the child becomes isolated, demanding, ever at odds with the world. Failing the other, and it becomes passive, submissive and over-compliant.
Put in its broadest terms, the business of learning to navigate one’s own course as smoothly and rhythmically as possible through the endless and ever-changing currents of life – the essence of the ‘way of Zen’ – is one that starts then, at this first and earliest stage. But it cannot be hoped to be completely accomplished at this point, if ever. This most fundamental of all the skills of living is something that requires constant practice and improvement as long as life itself goes on.
Stage 2: The Toddler
A reasonable relationship of give-and-take established with its mother, and the one-year-old is ready to make its first independent moves away from the lap or the cot, first on all fours, then on two legs. Now – heady adventure – it is time to leave mother entirely, to travel right to the other side of the room, or even under the dark table! Until that is, it all becomes a bit too frightening. The child is starting to show how it can become a separate being, but not too separate, and not for too long.
Bit by bit of course, the separation does increase, the ventures-out go further and last longer. Wanting (to go here or there, to lift this or remove that), can gradually be translated into achieving, as muscular skills are developed. Indeed, as speech comes, ‘want’ is one of the earliest utterances, only rivalled in intensity by that wonderful word ‘no’. For now, it is not just will but a clash of wills. Child says ‘want’, mother says ‘can’t’; mother says ‘do’, and child says ‘won’t’. Conflicts become a daily happening, and where they do not get readily resolved, the child resorts to whining or tantrums.
So here is a new dilemma. This is the stage when the child must learn not just to seek appropriate satisfaction of its needs, but (in simple ways at first) to express its own will in the world. However, it must also learn to respond to given demands and prohibitions, both for its own safety and for the safety and comfort of others. Falling to one side of the dilemma and the child becomes out-of-control, a little tyrant, ‘spoilt’. Falling to the other, it fails to develop proper assertiveness, drive and assurance. Somehow a new synthesis must gradually be found in what might be called controlled autonomy; that is, the ready expression of impulse in a way that at the same time embodies appropriate control and constraint.
The first goals in these early years are such basic things as the control at will of bodily excretion, feeding, dressing and general comportment. More broadly, the ever-better melding of impulse and constraint is again, something that demands attention through the whole of early life and beyond.
Stage 3: The Infant
When asked how well the infants at his child’s play-group interacted with each other, a father of our acquaintance said thoughtfully ‘they don’t so much interact as intersect’. Even when little children do start to approach proper relationships, they do little more at first than simply ape acceptable behaviour. Though they may start to give kisses, for example, there is as yet no real depth of love behind them. Though they may practise saying sorry, there is as yet no developed sense of transgression. Their sense of their own selves being as yet so little developed, they have no real sense of the other.
Thus, from about the third year onwards a new task starts to assume prime importance, that of developing genuine personal interplay: of learning, that is, to become a proper human person who interacts with other human persons. It is a task which is of course, broadly contemporary with the development of speech. And this is not surprising, given that words are the most important means by which humans communicate back and forth to each other their diverse, subtle, and complex feelings, views and wishes. As always in the early years, interacting with mother (or any other principal carer) is the chief means by which the process of development is forwarded. It is largely through constant interaction with mother that the child gradually learns who she is, and how to express herself to another, exactly at the same time that she is learning more about who this being is that faces her, and how she too expresses herself.
The child learns that she has a name of her own (as do other people). She learns that she is (in this case) a girl, though still a little one. As she is helped to remember what happened today, then yesterday, then earlier, so she gains a sense of her own continuing identity through time (and the continuing identity of others). She learns that when she hits people they experience pain (as she does when hit); that if she says unpleasant things to them that they are likely to get upset (as she does); that when she is open and friendly they are likely to respond in kind. Toys or household articles are used to practise upon in imaginary interactions in which they are loved, scolded, put to bed, and so on (for at this age the divisions between inanimate things, animals, and people, are not all that strongly registered). This is the time of first proper play, of first friends, of first games.
Around the fourth or fifth year a new depth is achieved with the realisation that others have their own independent relationships, one to another – most notably, and disturbingly of course, mother and father. We have to thank Freud for bringing into general recognition the new and explosive feelings that this last realisation can provoke. And of course in the Freudian view, this is also the time when the ‘superego’ starts to form; more colloquially, the period when the child starts to develop a real conscience, a real sense of right and wrong.
The central conflict at this stage now takes the form of whether to give primacy to one’s own feelings, needs and wishes, or to defer to those of others (most notably again, those of mother). Somehow, a synthesis has to be found. Failure on one side leads to crude egoism; failure on the other leads to habitually putting others first and the lack of a good self-image. Starting to create personal interplay of a truly mutual kind is the prime task of the years three to five. But once again, the continual improvement of this central aspect of human existence provides continuing work for a lifetime.
Stage 4: The Schoolchild
Somewhere around the fifth or sixth year another significant stage is embarked upon as the child becomes ready to start school, not just play-group or nursery school, but ‘real’ school. There may still be plenty of play going on, but the child is now expected to start engaging in serious learning, real work; where given end-results have to be achieved by sustained effort and with the suspension of immediate gratification.
In the next few years the child has to acquire all the basic skills and customary beliefs and practices that are necessary to perform as a normal-functioning member of society. It has to learn the elementary facts, as currently taken, of the natural and geographical characteristics of the world in which it lives; the basic accepted histories of its own and other peoples; the basic mores and religious beliefs of the society in which it is growing up. In modern societies, it must learn to read, write, do basic calculations, and compose simple messages, narratives, applications, and the like.
All this is the main content of the five of six years of primary education. During this same period, in school or outside, the child must also get practice in playing social roles of various kinds; caring, receiving, leading, following, and so on. It must discover how to be an accepted member of a team or gang, and how to play more complex parts in organised theatricals or impromptu make-believe. It must learn how to follow rules, when to bend them, and when (in special circumstances) to override them. It must learn to be fair, to be courteous, to respect confidences, to act reasonably.
As we say, this is the main task of the years from about five to about eleven. But of course, in modem societies it does not come to an end at this last age. Throughout the teens and into the early twenties there are ever more facts and skills to acquire, and ever more complex roles to master, increasingly specific and professionally oriented, as time goes on.
In all this activity, starting in primary school years but extending well beyond, there is again a deep dilemma. On the one hand the child or young person must acquire the approaches and methods which are tried, tested and approved in society, just as they are laid down. On the other, it must be encouraged to discover its own individual ways of tackling things; to use its own initiative, to foster its idiosyncratic creativity. Somehow each child must find a synthesis in which it develops what may be called individualised competence; that is, knowledge, attitudes and skills which show sensible conformity to established practice, whilst leaving necessary scope for individual insight and ability. In the earliest years there will be an inevitable bias towards teaching the child to do things in the ‘right’, that is, standard, way. But if this is too prolonged, the child or young person becomes able only to produce copybook performances which stifle its own development and creativity as well as failing to match-up to the ever-changing needs of life and circumstance. On the other hand lies the danger of the emergence of an untutored, if original, oddity; one who is unable to draw (or draw coherently) upon the vast existing treasure-house of developed ideas and knowledge, and is therefore able to achieve little or nothing of lasting value.
Stage 5: The Adolescent
The bursting forth of puberty around age eleven or twelve marks what is perhaps the most obvious of all starts to a new stage of life. Not only is the physical appearance transformed, but the whole mental and emotional outlook as well. Many pre-pubescent children of say, nine or ten, may appear quite sophisticated, surprisingly knowledgeable about how the world works, and reasonably able to negotiate a range of different social situations. But something crucial is still needed: passion. Adolescence may be thought of as a time of (to coin a word) impassionment. Passionate friendships, memberships and sexual partnerships are embarked upon, and passionate stands assumed on various social, political, or religious causes.
Fired with rising passion, the adolescent finds energy for a necessary and major shift, that of breaking away from the family and forming new links in the broader world. At first any breaking away usually excludes the economic level: the family still largely provides housing and money. But there is certainly a shift in emotional linkage. Members of the family are, for example, much less likely to be used as confidants with whom to share private distresses and fantasies. Increasingly, such are likely to be found among best friends, or outside mentors. Family ideas and customs – the family ‘culture’, whatever form it takes – are up to be reassessed or challenged at every point. In course of time, key figures met in the broader world become the most important in life, rather than mother or father, brother or sister.
The central dilemma at this stage is obvious and sharp. On the one hand, adolescents must leave behind the family in order to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the exploration of new experiences, ideas, and relationships. On the other, they must continue to keep in effective contact with their origins. If they do not, they may find themselves deeply involved in unorthodox experiments and life styles with no firm ground to fall back on, and no established guidelines to hang onto when the going gets rough. In extreme cases, their very sanity or life may be at risk.
The challenge is to develop what may be called rooted independence, that is, for each to develop his or her own individual life, loves, beliefs, and integrity, but to keep a continuing link to the support and nurture offered by the original family and culture. A failure one way, and the person concerned (assuming they do indeed survive the more extreme dangers) becomes fixed, sometimes for a lifetime, in an attitude of perpetual reaction and rebellion. Failure the other, and the individual stays bound in the safe cocoon of original family care and outlook, in some sense, a constant child.
Stage 6: The Young Adult
By the end of their teens young people in modem societies are, legally speaking, adults. Most will be sexually experienced, and have developed life styles and views of their own. Most will already have lived away from their homes for significant periods. Most will already have done paid work of some kind or other. But few will have settled into a life-long career. And few if any, will have assumed full adult responsibility; in particular, responsibility for the care, upbringing or activities of another human being: a dependant, partner, or employee, for example.
The next stage is one that is largely unrecognised in current discussion. It can be called ‘young adult’. Its task is, in essence, to get suitably established: in living-place, in work, and in sexual or working partnerships. It is a necessary preliminary to sustained productivity or the rearing of families (the next stage of life), and its course may take many years to work through. (It may take professionals like doctors or lawyers, for example, until their early thirties before they become really established).
Most current thinking tends to assume that the bulk of young people should by the end of their teens or thereabouts, be ready and well-prepared to step into the work they are to do for the rest of their lives (just as it used to be assumed that young people of this age ought to be ready to select partners for life-long marriage). But it is clear that finding true vocations or life-long partners is not easily done. For most young people, a considerable period of experimentation is required in which, with due application and a helping of luck, the individual concerned eventually finds the locale, job, partner, to which they are really well-suited. Many wrong choices and blind alleys must be expected. The whole will take time, and forbearance (as well as occasional help) will be called for from more-mature adults looking on.
As this particular stage the central conflict is as follows. On the one side there is society, pressing young adults to settle down as soon as possible, to commit themselves, to become useful and productive. On the other, there is the urge to keep exploring; to discover just what variety of possibilities do exist, here, there, and everywhere; to discover just which suit you, and which do not. The task is somehow to synthesise the social demand and the individual need; to get not just established, but (as we say) suitably established. Failure one way will manifest as premature achievement, as an apparent rapid success which subsequently turns sour (see the comments to come on ‘mid-life crises’). Failure the other way can lead to the familiar phenomenon of the person who is still, in middle-years, a perpetual wanderer, unable to settle, moving from person to person and job to job until the opportunities begin to dry up, and the sustaining hope starts to turn to despair.
Stage 7: The Mature Adult
If things go reasonably well, most people by their late twenties can be expected to have explored enough, prepared enough, and trained enough, to have found some activity or situation in which they may now regularly produce goods or services of social value. Many too, will be living together in established long-term partnerships. Overall, they are now ready to start repaying society for all that has been invested in their long upbringing. And this culminating stage may continue for the next thirty years or more. The productive work referred to may include artistic, charitable, or political activity (even political activism), as well as the more obvious forms of commercial employment or entrepreneur-ship. It may involve upbringing of the young, or care of the old. It will often include (particularly as time goes on) acting as a teacher or mentor to the generation of younger adults coming up close behind – an important and easily overlooked activity. It may or may not be paid for in wage or salary.
Being apparently well-established and in the broad sense, productive, it might be assumed that the individual concerned had largely left behind any internal conflicts of direction, though of course, facing many external difficulties. But this would be an illusion. This stage, like all the previous ones, presents its own characteristic dilemma. Society has its legitimate demands, saying in effect various things like ‘your duty lies here’, ‘stick to what you are doing’, ‘keep producing’. But the soul has its own idiosyncratic ideas. It may come to be sick of work once found rewarding, begin to question norms and practices once regarded as acceptable, begin to tire of partnerships once found exciting. As life goes on different interests and needs will inevitably arise. Growing ability and experience will seek new challenges to tackle. Sometimes, a quite out-of-the-ordinary contact or opportunity will awaken an overwhelming urge to respond.
Ignoring these vital inner prompts, and the individual may start to find that all real joy and satisfaction is gradually draining from the habitual work or role. And work that is done, or role that is played, without any joy, is ultimately bereft of quality, not merely for the performer, but for any or all at the receiving end – customers, partners, dependants, or whatever. On the other side lies the danger of getting permanently lost in a long, narcissistic quest of personal exploration and improvement which never, in fact, produces things or relationships of lasting worth.
Somehow a further synthesis has to be found. A dynamic balance has to be sought, in which kinds of work or role are undertaken which, at the same time as they aid and develop other people or society at large, help their performer to realise to the full his or her own potential, and satisfy his or her own deepest needs as these continue to change and develop. The goal here is one that may be described shortly as self-developing productivity. In principle there need be no conflict: that which most benefits the individual and stretches his or her particular capacities to the full is likely to yield the most socially-valuable product which that particular person could be hoped to achieve. In practice of course, things will rarely be so easy. Even if it is clear to the person concerned just what particular direction they should now be heading in, family responsibilities may prevent any immediate movement, economic or social circumstances may block desired changes, and so on.
In any event, in pursuit of this synthesis, the person concerned, ever changing and developing, can never afford to regard themselves as completely ‘settled’. (To settle completely is to start a slow dying.) Even if in a sound and lasting partnership, constant watchfulness will be required to deal with areas of emerging difficulty or new potential. Even if in the right general line of work or service, constant awareness will be called for of possible branchings ahead, and which of them merit active pursuit. Sometimes a full-scale crisis may have to be contended with, one which demands a radical change; in effect, a major re-establishment.
Mid-Life and Other Crises
Let us pause at this point to consider where life-crises fit into the scheme so far described, crises in general, and mid-life crises in particular. In general, a person may be said to be at a crisis point in life whenever it becomes apparent that something big and difficult is demanded, but where the best way to proceed is far from clear to them. It is a point where existing beliefs, practices and frameworks offer no good guidance (otherwise even a major decision could be made relatively easily). A great effort is needed, not just of decision, but of facing up to some radically new kind of situation.
Disasters, losses and sudden illnesses can all precipitate crises. So too (oddly), can windfalls, gains and unexpected opportunities – just try winning the state lottery! But crises can also arise when, though all in life appears outwardly to be proceeding as normal, something inside starts to say: this way of life will not do, it is stagnant, it must be changed. A Gauguin leaves city life to paint in the South Seas; a Loyola leaves soldiering to found a holy order. Any crisis is a time of danger but it is also a time of opportunity -to find some new mastery, to develop, to grow – and sometimes our better-self propels us into a crisis without external cause when it feels that we have stopped moving forward in life. Whatever the exact cause, if the challenge is successfully risen to, life can then proceed more steadily on a new basis (with whatever ease or difficulty) for some extended period; until that is, the next crisis beckons. If however the challenge proves too much, then slow decline will inevitably follow, if not rapid dissolution.
If handled properly, transitions between the life-stages just described should not present crises; each successive stage should develop naturally and smoothly from its predecessor. Often however, the way the world responds to expected transitions may itself provoke a crisis, as when children are pushed abruptly into full-time schooling (Stages 3 – 4), young adults into arranged jobs or marriages (Stages 6 – 7), or older adults suddenly into total retirement (Stages 7-8).
Thus crises can occur at any time or stage of life, close together or widely separated, with causes external or internal, many and various. However in considering the stages of life there is one type of crisis – the so-called ‘mid-life’ one – which does warrant special examination. Writers differ widely in their conception of such events. Our own view is that the typical mid-life crisis is best understood as arising from an emerging sense of travelling along a road that is heading in the wrong direction; a road one no longer wants to be on (if one ever did). Moreover (and this is also characteristic of a mid-life crisis) there is a strong accompanying urge to do something about it; to get onto some new and better road.
The wrong road recognised in a mid-life crisis is often (though not always) one that was taken at some earlier point in life in response to strong family or societal pressures, open or covert. In this case, during the process we have described as getting ‘suitably established’ in early adulthood, what was ‘suitable’ was in effect being given a social twist rather than springing directly, as it should have been, from the specific needs of the individual concerned. So, as it develops, a typical mid-life crisis is often marked by the irruption of urgent questions: ‘Hey, hold on, I’ve been doing mostly what they want so far. What do I really want? What do I really need?’
Viewed thus, mid-life crises, where they occur, are characteristic phenomena of the period of Mature Adulthood as we have just described it. In effect, they are crises which force a temporary return to the previous life-stage: they demand some further period of getting more suitably established or re-established, but one proceeding from a position where the fruits of a first effort of establishment have already been tasted. The likeliest years for this particular experience to hit, seem to be from the mid-thirties to the early forties. Crises in earlier years and stages cannot have this quality of reacting against the sense of significant travel along what is now, or has always been, the wrong road. Crises in later years, sharp though they may be, are increasingly unlikely to be accompanied by a necessary drive and energy to make a completely new start.
Stage 8: The Ageing Adult
We return now to the stages. Any time from the late-fifties onwards, awareness may arise that the last main stage of life is approaching. From this point on certain evidences of decline start inevitably to declare themselves: changes in appearance, loss of agility, diminution in energy and initiative; perhaps some feeling of ennui or fatigue around activities – occupational business, child-care, or whatever – that may have been carried on happily enough over many past years. Of course, the onset of these things varies markedly from person to person, and perhaps with profession. Political or business leaders often remain both vigorous and committed to their work, well through their sixties. Many writers or creative artists may also go on producing through the same years, though they may have to find a ‘third period’ style.
However, for one and all in these later years a dilemma increasingly asks for resolution. As age advances, is the best thing simply to give up, more or less gracefully; to resign and prepare oneself for steady decline and death? Or should one fight to retain all the activities of earlier years (as well as the personal appearance that goes with them) as long as conceivably possible? Neither prospect is happy. On the one side there is a decline into second childhood and dependency, a status that modern society, with all its stress on high activity is only too willing to assign to the ageing. On the other, there is an ultimately ridiculous attempt to deny reality. On the one side, despair. On the other, impossible hope.
What is the way out? Here, even more than before, the difference should be noted between a compromise and a synthesis. Faced with the dilemma just described, it will be natural and sensible to strike balances: to lay down or reduce certain burdens, but to remain active in other spheres; to accept ageing appearance but still to groom and dress smartly; and so on. But a true synthesis does not just strike balances: it moves to a higher plane. What is really required, we suggest, is a final synthesis that may shortly be described as caring acceptance. In this, the strand of giving-up is transmuted to a positive acceptance; acceptance of decline, likely ill-health, and death, as well as acceptance of the manifold happinesses, large or small, that life may bring until its very end. The strand of continuing drive and activity is transmuted into a more gentle and pervasive caring; caring in a giving and not just a feeling sense. In the fullest synthesis the two strands become so fused that each is simply an aspect of the other.
Speaking generally, every synthesis is a transcendence, literally a ‘climbing beyond’. But at this stage there is the possibility of transcendence of quite a new kind, namely, and unlike previous stages, a significant change from the hither-to-settled focus on one’s own immediate society and patch. There is a possibility of going beyond given family, friends, or tribe to an identification with human beings at large, to whatever classes, kinds or nations they may belong. To this may be added a new sense of closer communion with the natural world; with the world of plants, animals, and earth. There may be a lessening of a habitual concern for current affairs in favour of a greater recognition of the deeper processes of time and history. Overall, there may be a feeling of moving beyond one’s separate individuality to a sense of being simply a part of the great whole. Old age offers the last chance for such changes (though this does not mean to say that there cannot have been moves in this direction in earlier years).
In any event, age proffers one potential advantage for all concerned. In the nature of things, age implies some lengthy accumulation of knowledge and experience. Out of it, greater wisdom may grow. Much of the caring for others that may infuse a properly-developed old age will draw upon such a quality. Acting as the holders and purveyors of wisdom is the role of the grandparent in many traditional societies, and one that is in grave danger of being lost in many modern ones. Those in the prime of mature adulthood naturally carry most of the power in societies in their various roles as parents, trainers, executive leaders and mentors. But those in the stage beyond, as grandparents, counsellors, honorary presidents, or simply themselves, can offer something broader and greater. In all these ways then, the final stage need not be a miserable dwindling, but a yet-further evolution or transformation.
Table: Stages of Life – Characteristic Dilemmas
|Stage of Life||The Needs of Self||The Demands of the World||Possible Synthesis|
|Babe-in-arms||Primitive Needs||Offered Opportunities||Confident Interaction|
|Toddler||Autonomy||Compliance||Controlled (i.e. Bounded) Autonomy|
|Infant||I (Ego)||Other (Alter)||Personal Interplay|
|Schoolchild||Idiosyncrasy||Accepted Ways||Individualised Competence|
|Adolescent||Independence||Family Ties||Rooted Independence|
|Young Adult||Exploration||Settling Down||Suitable Establishment|
|Mature Adult||Personal Development||Social Production||Self-developing Productivity|
|Ageing Adult||Fighting On||Resignation||Caring Acceptance|
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