Human Purpose, the Evolution of Narrative, and the Challenge of a New Cultural Story

I was invited recently to comment on how our cultural narrative—the stories we tell—has evolved over time, and how it continues to evolve today. It is a great topic, and one that makes a particularly accessible entry point for understanding the concept of Cultural Maturity and its significance. Culturally mature perspective makes it newly possible to step back and appreciate how the stories we tell about what matters and how things work have changed. It also provides a new kind of narrative that can effectively take us forward. You can find a video of my comments at https://vimeo.com/120410102″>https://vimeo.com/120410102″>https://vimeo.com/120410102. (If you have trouble with this link, try cutting and pasting the address.)

The concept of Cultural Maturity helps us in three essential ways. First, it provides a new guiding narrative in a time when stories we’ve traditionally relied on—from the American Dream to various political and religious allegiances—serve us less and less well. Second, it identifies needed new skills and capacities that we can practice. And third, it helps us develop the more sophisticated conceptual tools that the future will increasingly require. The first of these three contributions is most readily grasped—and arguably the most immediately important.

With today’s loss of familiar cultural guideposts—from clear moral codes, to gender roles, to once unquestioned images of success—too often people find their lives feeling aimless, with little sense of meaning and direction. In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks observed how different circumstances are today from as little as fifty year ago when lofty authority figures provided Americans with answers to ultimate questions of meaning. He described how today “many [people] feel lost or overwhelmed. They feel a hunger to live meaningfully, but they don’t know the right questions to ask, the right vocabulary to use, the right place to look or even if there are ultimate answers at all.” (David Brooks, “What Is Your Purpose?” New York Times, May 5, 2015.) I’ve described how such changes produce a modern “crisis of purpose.” The concept of Cultural Maturity offers fresh perspective for addressing questions of meaning. It also offers a compelling picture of what going forward might entail. In the process, it provides an antidote to this crisis of purpose.

The video documents how the stories we humans tell have evolved through history. I describe a progression from animistic narratives (where truth lies in our interrelationship with nature) in our tribal beginnings, to great mythic tales (where truth lies with interrelationships of a more magical sort) with the early rise of civilizations, to legends (where truth lies with moral right) in medieval times, to the more heroic and romantic tales of our Modern Age. Our stories have changed over time in readily identifiable (and, Creative Systems Theory argues, creatively predictable) ways.

The video also describes how today this evolution continues. In our time, we see a mix of underlying narratives—heroic and romantic narratives left over from Modern Age perspective, along with postmodern narratives. We also see the beginnings of culturally mature narrative.

The following observations adapted from my most recent book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future (With an Introduction to the Ideas of Creative Systems Theory) briefly summarizes the modern evolution of narrative, how that evolution continues today, and Cultural Maturity’s essential place in that evolution:

“The evolution of narrative over the last three hundred years provides essential insight for understanding our time. Belief through culture’s Modern Age juxtaposed heroic or romantic narratives. Both heroic and romantic narratives are each ideological in the sense that they promise final fulfillment and last-word truth. Heroic narratives describe the overcoming of obstacles to realize some ultimate achievement. Romantic narratives describe some meeting—either personal or more encompassing—that results in emotional or spiritual completion. Heroic and romantic narratives can work alone or together. The most familiar of social narratives—the American Dream, opposing political worldviews, the traditional beliefs of our various religions, progress’ promise of ever onward-and-upward scientific discovery and technological advancement—are all of this heroic/romantic sort.

Following heroic/romantic narrative we find stories of a more transitional sort, stories that straddle Cultural Maturity’s threshold. Such narratives recognize the limitations of ideological absolutes but are capable of only a beginning grasp of what—if anything—may lie beyond such belief. I use the word “postmodern” as a catchall term to describe this kind of story.

Postmodern narrative first appeared with existentialism over a hundred years ago. In the later years of the last century, with social constructivist thinking, postmodern narrative came to have an increasingly prominent role in academia. Today, it is a major influence in the popular arts. Postmodern narrative at its best alerts us to how once-and-for-all truths now fail us, the fact of multiple viewpoints, and the importance of taking final responsibility in our choices. At its worst, it reduces to a different-strokes-for-different-folks arbitrariness and a confusion of irony and contradiction with significance that becomes, in effect, but another kind of ideology (and a kind of ideology that is particularly tedious and difficult to counter). Such is the expected dual fate of such “straddling” belief.

Cultural Maturity’s new narrative offers that we might proceed more fully beyond ideology by leaving behind both absolutist belief and tendencies to elevate the absence of belief. It takes the best of postmodern insight and then moves beyond it. It describes the possibility of engaging experience more consciously and fully from the complex whole of who we are, and in the process more fully confronting the complexities of the world around us. In the process, it provides essential guidance as we look to the future, and the possibility of a new and deeper sense of responsibility and purpose in our experience of being human.”

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Learning to hear the narrative assumptions that underlie beliefs and assertions is a key capacity that comes with culturally mature perspective. Doing so offers a powerful tool for understanding what we see and hear around us. It provides one of the best ways to separate the wheat from the chaff in people’s claims—one that can take us beyond just the rightness or wrongness of someone’s words. It also helps us critique creative expression of all kinds—from popular culture to the high arts—and identify where significant contributions lie. Ultimately, the ability to do so provides essential guidance for making good choices in our time.

In his column, Brooks observed that “scholars [today] have a lot of knowledge to bring, but they’re not in the business of offering wisdom on the ultimate questions.” With Cultural Maturity’s changes, each of us, in every part of our lives, becomes more capable of conversation that engages at the level of meaning—and ultimately of wisdom. Being able to step back from the stories we tell is key to doing so effectively.