Creative Systems Theory brings very big-picture, long-term perspective to the human condition. It addresses understanding as a whole, not just particular concerns, and it helps us make sense of the very different ways we have understood ourselves and our worlds over the course of human history. But it also provides perspective for addressing critical questions in our time. The CST concept of Cultural Maturity delineates how effective decision-making in times ahead will require capacities new to us as a species. Appreciating this fact helps us both take on the specific tasks of our time and make sense of contemporary phenomenon that otherwise might leave us baffled.
There is one current circumstances–related CST notion that I have not written a great deal about. The concept of Transitional Absurdity describes how a lot that we can find most disturbing—indeed ludicrous—in our time is predicted by how change in human systems work.
Transitional Absurdity’s are products of three related mechanisms. Some Transitional Absurdities simply reflect stopping short of what our times demand of us. This can be either because we fail to recognize that anything new is required or because contemplating needed changes is more than we can tolerate. Other Transitional Absurdities are products of overwhelm and regression in the face of new demands. And others still reflect “overshooting the mark,” avoiding what is being asked by applying old ways of thinking in evermore exaggerated ways.
Some examples of specific Transitional Absurdities we will examine shortly include: the kind of denial in the face of inescapable challenges we see with climate change, intractable polarization (as we currently witness in the social political arena), debilitating feelings of aimlessness or alienation (expressions of what CST calls our modern Crisis of Purpose), the selling of values of the most superficial sort (most specifically, extreme forms of materialism and looking-out-for-number-one individualism) and techno-utopian beliefs that make invention the assumed solution whatever the problem
There are good reasons why I’ve not written more about the concept of Transitional Absurdity. The very-big-picture nature of the concept can make it difficult to be sure that a particular phenomenon at a specific point in time is a product of these dynamics. In addition, the concept is easily misunderstood and applied in unhelpful ways. It can be used to justify ideology-based critiques of views a person may find “absurd” only because they differ from one’s own beliefs. And people who are vulnerable to depression and cynicism can misconstrue the implications. Transitional Absurdities can seem to leave little reason to continue on.
But while the concept can be tricky to use well, it is an essential tool for the culturally mature leader’s tool bag. Understood with needed depth and subtlety, it offers essential perspective. Indeed it provides an antidote to exactly the dangers that can come with its misuse. The concept helps us get beyond ideological easy answers. And while cynisicm could easily seem a warranted response, in fact the concept is consistent with hope. Indeed it is difficult to justify being hopeful without such a concept.
My purpose with this post is to provide the needed depth and subtlety of understanding. I will expand on earlier writings where I have addressed specific Transitional Absurdities. I will also more thoroughly set the stage theoretically. I will begin with a couple topics that draw specifically on CST—the evolution of narrative and what CST calls the Dilemma of Trajectory. Each topic helps make understandable how the specific distortions I will describe are products of big-picture cultural dynamics. Each also helps clarify why we see the particular kinds of distorted beliefs that we do. After these stage-setting reflections, I will then turn to particular examples, adding to and updating those that I have noted previously.
It is hard to ignore that much that goes on in our times is not at all sane. And we must not ignore it—we pay a high price if we do. The concept of Transitional Absurdity simply adds that we also pay a high price if we become overwhelmed and misinterpret what we see. We can end up hiding in denial, becoming immobilized, or succumbing to limited—and often ludicrous—easy-answer thinking. At the least, we can let what we encounter distract us from what our times ultimately ask of us.
Narrative and Transitional Absurdity
The first stage-setting topic turns to the stories we tell about who we are—to the evolution of “narrative.” CST chronicles how the stories we humans tell have changed over time and in readily identifiable (and CST argues, creatively predictable) ways. CST also addresses how this evolutionary process continues today.
Stepping way back, the theory describes a progression from animistic narratives in our tribal beginnings (where truth lies in our interrelationship with nature), to great mythic tales with the early rise of civilizations (where truth lies with interrelationships of a more magical sort), to legends in medieval times (where truth lies with blood-based authority and moral right), to the more heroic and romantic tales of our Modern Age, to today’s, increasingly “postmodern” beliefs.
A closer look at the evolution of narrative over the last three hundred years helps highlight what we see with Transitional Absurdity. CST defines ideology as any belief that promises final fulfillment and last-word truth. In this sense, heroic and romantic narratives, like all narratives previous, were ideological. 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. That word “postmodern” makes a good catchall term to describe this kind of story. I’ve written extensively about both the contributions and the limitations of postmodern perspective (see Postmodern/Constructivist Scenarios). Postmodern thinking first appeared with existentialism over a hundred years ago. In the later years of the last century it has had an increasingly prominent role in academia, and less explicitly in culture as a whole. `Postmodern perspective effectively challenges ideological absolutes. But at the same time, it is capable of only the most beginning grasp of what—if anything—may lie beyond them. At its best it alerts us to the fact of multiple viewpoints and the importance of taking final responsibility in our choices. At its worst it reduces to different-strokes-for-different-folks arbitrariness. Easily it 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 provides the needed next step. It takes the best of postmodern insight and then moves beyond it. Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes make it possible to engage experience more consciously and fully from the complex whole of who we are—and through this to better address the complexities of the world around us. In the process they offer that we might more fully transcend ideology by leaving behind both absolutist belief and the post-modern tendency to elevate the absence of belief. The result is 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.
Today we encounter an easily confusing mix of cultural stories—heroic and romantic narratives left over from modern age assumptions, postmodern belief, and the beginnings of culturally mature perspective. We can think of the various forms of Transitional Absurdity in terms of this crazy-quilt of conflicting stories. Some Transitional Absurdities reflect the inability to see beyond the heroic and romantic assumptions of times past. Others reflect reactions to confronting the loss of past, more ideological truths—either distortions of belief or depression/grief on recognizing that no new such absolutes are likely to replace them. Many of the most significant Transitional Absurdities reflect attempts to apply past more familiar stories in exaggerated, and thus ultimately even more ideological forms. The result is claims and actions that are at best silly, at worst dangerously misleading.
Transitional Absurdities are problematical not just because they distort perception. What I think of as today’s most fundamental crisis—our time’s Crisis of Purpose—is ultimately a crisis of narrative (see Humanity’s Crisis of Purpose). We lack shared stories sufficiently compelling to guide us forward. Transitional Absurdities leave us distanced from the ability to recognize the essential need for a new story, and further still from the ability to address it.
The Dilemma of Trajectory and Transitional Absurdity
The second stage-setting topic focuses attention on a unique circumstance that comes with Transitional dynamics. The changes that come with the analogous point in any formative process involve more than just letting go of one stage and moving to another as we see with every previous stage. They bring into question the whole developmental orientation that up until that point has defined growth and truth. This circumstance confronts us with a critical quandary that might seem a show-stopper. Creative Systems Theory calls it the Dilemma of Trajectory. In the Dilemma of Trajectory as it manifests specifically in culture’s developmental story we find the origins of some of the most extreme—and most crazy-seeming—examples of Transitional Absurdity.
The Dilemma of Trajectory follows directly from how change in human systems works. CST describes how each stage in any developmental process’s first half produces greater distance between differences that we tend to describe in polar terms. Some examples with particular pertinence to culture’s evolutionary story—ever-greater distinction between the individual and the collective, between the material and the spiritual, between mind and body, and between humankind and nature. At Transition, this defining impetus reaches an extreme. The Dilemma of Trajectory brings attention to how going further in this direction stops giving us anything of value. Indeed there is an important sense in which it really stops being possible at all.
Contrasting the two developmental periods in our personal lives for which people commonly use the word maturity both highlights this quandary and helps clarify how further options—indeed rich and important options—might lie beyond it. The first half of personal development is marked by processes that produce ever-greater independence, individuality, and authority over the world around us—each expressions of increasing difference and separation. Our first definition of personal maturity—becoming adult—reflects this familiar trajectory. But while this general direction of change works well in the first half of our lives—in fact it defines growth—in the second half of life it stops serving us in the same way. If we continue on as we have, the second half of life becomes increasingly absurd, at best a thin caricature of youth. Successfully engaging second-half-of-life developmental challenges produces changes of a specifically integrative sort. This is not to say that individuality becomes less—in fact it continues to grow, often manifesting in particularly delightful and idiosyncratic ways. But when we successfully take on second-half-of-life developmental tasks, the tendency toward difference becomes counterbalanced by equally important integrative mechanisms.
If we look to culture’s story to this point, we see changes analogous to those we encounter with personal development’s first half. Similarly, we find growing impetus toward independence, individuality, and authority. The invention of fire freed human migration. The Magna Carta affirmed basic human privilege. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the right of the individual to the pursuit of happiness. And the Industrial Age brought dramatic new expressions of human dominion and control.
Again focusing more specifically on the last three hundred years, growing delineation of the individual will and a newly perceived authority over nature and the irrational have in effect defined our Modern Age. Such achievement could not have been more significant. But today, in a similar way to what we see with personal development, this developmental trajectory has stopped serving us. The tasks of our time demand accomplishments of a different sort. While much of what we have reaped, and will continue to reap, from our ability to stand separate in the sense of individuality and autonomy of choice is profound, the future cries out as much for a new appreciation of how we are related, a fresh understanding of caring, community, and the common good. In a similar way, while culture’s evolution has also brought with it increasing human control—over nature, over our own bodies, over life’s deep mysteries—today almost the opposite seems equally a part of what is needed, a new humility to what we cannot control, a new sensitivity to when we should be listening as opposed to directing (whether the voice needing attention is the natural world, our tissues, or the unfathomable).
We confront profound questions, indeed questions with God-like implications, but the authority needed to address them is not some ascension to a chair of final dominion (ourselves somehow becoming God). It is also different from some further iteration of the Enlightenment’s grand goal of bringing all of understanding into the pure light of awareness and realizing final control over the untamed. Indeed, many of the problems we face in today’s world derive from just such hubristic notions of what right action is about. We are left in a pickle that cannot be resolved within the assumptions of our first kind of maturity. Any familiar notion of going forward threatens to take us in very wrong directions.
Thinking of polar differences more generically helps refine our understanding of the Dilemma of Trajectory and its implications. CST describes a gradual progression over the course of history from realities in which more connectedness-related—more “left-hand,” archetypally feminine—sensibilities prevailed, to today, when more difference-related—more “right-hand,” archetypally masculine sensibilities predominate. Cultural Maturity’s threshold presents a strange circumstance. The archetypally masculine has today almost wholly eclipsed the archetypally feminine. We stand in a world of all content and no context, of all right hand and no left, of life as ultimate abstraction stretched ever more distant from the foundations of experience.
With this more generic picture we begin to appreciate how the past’s story of growing distinction is problematical not just because ignoring its implications can result in misguided actions. Taken far enough, it threatens to severe us from much that is most important in being human—such as the body, the child’s world of imagination, our human connectedness with one another, and our felt relationship with nature, and the spiritual. In a further critical way we see how distinction and separation can only go so far. We also further appreciate how Cultural Maturity—or at least something that can produce changes similar to the more integrative mechanisms the concept describes—becomes the only real option. If it is accurate to think of cultural evolution as creative, proceeding further in this direction of distinction and separation leads to circumstances that are not just absurd, but ultimately self-destructive.
We turn now to specific examples of Transitional Absurdity. I’ve described how Transitional Absurdities are products of three related mechanisms: stopping short of needed understanding, regression in the face of overwhelming challenges, and “overshooting the mark.” The following file includes diagrams that people who think more visually may find helpful. (Trans AB)
Transitional Absurdities #1—Stopping short of needed understanding
Some Transitional Absurdities are products simply of the inability to recognize that anything new is being asked of us. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how critical challenges before us demand capacities new to us as a species. When a challenge we face is of this sort and we as yet lack the requisite maturity of perspective, not only will our actions prove ineffective, we will fail to recognize the questions that most need to be asked. I’ve included a couple examples that highlight one of the most important of those needed new capacities—the ability to acknowledge and act wisely in the face of real limits (see Limits).
Climate change denial. Blindness to the fact of real limits is perhaps most obvious with the ignoring of damage done to the environment and the potential for ecological catastrophe. Climate change puts the possible consequences of such blindness in particularly high relief. It highlights not just environmental limits, but also limits inherent to ideological belief. Too often the climate change conversation reduces to debate over whether we can be sure that climate change is real (which science by its nature cannot tell us). When it does, we end up asking the wrong question (see Climate Change: How Asking the Wrong Question Produces Results That Are, In Effect,Suicidal). The appropriate (systemic) question concerns risk assessment. We want to know whether the risk of adding further carbon to the atmosphere is worth it. With this recognition, climate change denial shifts from being a legitimate position to Transitional Absurdity. I’ve proposed that ignoring the data today is like playing Russian Roulette with five bullets in the chamber.
The health care Delivery crisis. In a similar way with health care, we can keep inviolable limits at arms length. When we do, again we end up asking the wrong questions. We endlessly debate health care delivery approaches when no approach can work if we ignore limits. I’ve written extensively about how effectively addressing the health care delivery crisis will require a willingness to consciously limit health care availability—to, in effect, “ration” care. In turn, this will require a new maturity in our human relationship with life’s ultimate limit—with our mortality. Limiting care that might otherwise be available requires that we “choose” death, and not just for enemies as in times past, but for people we love and perhaps for ourselves. I’ve argued that the health care delivery crisis will in time make other death-related human challenges such as abortion, capital punishment, and assisted suicide look like child’s play. Because confronting health care limits asks so much of us, politicians on both the political Left and political Right have found it easiest to ignore them. Each has paid a steep price, both in political capital, and in the larger sense that effective policy remains yet far in the future (see Health Care Delivery as Political Crazy-maker).
Transitional Absurdities #2—Regression in the face of easily overwhelming challenges
Other Transitional Absurdities are products not so much of missing the big picture as regressing in the face of all it asks. Any transitional change requires a lot of us, but as I’ve described, the specific transitional realities presented by the Dilemma of Trajectory are disruptive in particularly fundamental ways. It is not unreasonable that people could become overwhelmed and find themselves attracted to the easier beliefs of previous times. It is also not unreasonable that people might respond regressively with despondency and a loss of hope.
Partisan Insanity. More and more often today we find partisan gridlock, with neither side interested in any viewpoint other than their own. Such entrenchment is most obvious on the political Right where compromise has become a dirty word. But extreme populist “progressive” voices such as those who attempt to keep conservative speakers off of college campuses can be just as deaf to anything they might disagree with. CST describes how extreme polarization is a common response when systems are challenged to more that they can handle. It also alerts us to how the dangers of such extreme polarization go well beyond the inability to communicate. Polarization makes the needed new maturity of perspective nearly impossible. `We tend to think of conflicting political worldviews as rationally arrived-at differences of opinion. CST makes clear that more accurately political conclusions reflect opposing polar perspectives within larger systemic realities. Rather than being about right versus wrong, they reflect “competing goods.” With regressive polarization, we not only lose what ability we may have had to hear opposing views, it becomes impossible to see larger systemic realities. Politics comes to have less and less to do with governance. Indeed such polarization puts the whole democratic experiment in jeopardy (see Partisan Gridlock).
Authoritarian tendencies in the developed world. It does not surprise us when we see the election of authoritarian leaders in the developing world. CST proposes that when the time is right such leadership is appropriate and ultimately most effective (at least if it is of the more “benevolent” authoritarian sort). But in recent decades we’ve also seen something different—the rise of more authoritarian voices in countries where modern democratic structures have been well established.
This is a problem—and specifically regressive. Why do we see it? More authoritarian leadership promises order and stability in a world in which contemporary changes such as today’s post-modern weakening of social norms, globalization, and job loss through automation have for many people made life feel diminished and intolerably uncertain. Unfortunately, the ultimate result can only be further disorder and stability’s opposite.
Depression, addiction, alienation, and an erosion of civility. People who are not up to contemporary demands may also respond with despondency. Post-modern realities offer important new freedoms. And Cultural Maturity offers capacities that let us more effectively deal with adversity. But where peoples’ resources are limited and they see nothing to replace what new realities take away, a regressive loss of hope is a common reaction.
It not possible to know just how directly particular phenomenon that we see today tie to Transition’s big-picture mechanisms, but certainly much that we witness is consistent with them. According to the National Center for Disease Statistics, the overall suicide rate in the U.S. rose 24% from 1999 to 2014. There is also today’s addiction epidemic—with dramatic increases in opioid use, rampant obesity, and least acknowledged, but I suspect of greatest concern in the long term, evermore widespread addiction to our electronic “devices.” In addition, we witness growing feelings of alienation that can result in hate-related crimes and general social deterioration.
Transitional Absurdity #3—Overshooting the Mark
Many of the most consequential Transitional Absurdities reflect overshooting the mark in the transition from modern age realities into Cultural Maturity’s needed next cultural chapter. Overshooting the mark is pretty much how things work at any major cultural change point—partly as a result of fear and denial, partly because systems are not homogeneous. When we overshoot the mark, mechanisms that have served us can become amplified and distorted, producing beliefs and actions that are at the least not helpful—and, frequently, ludicrous and dangerous.
Because some of the Transitional Absurdity’s that result may be less obvious than those I have noted—and also because they often have particularly important implications—I will divide them into types: postmodern “over-shooting the mark” absurdities, extreme right-hand “over-shooting the mark” absurdities, and “over-shooting the mark” absurdities that exploit life-hand sensibilities.
Postmodern “Overshooting the Mark” Absurdities.
I’ve described how while postmodern perspective takes steps toward Cultural Maturity by challenging past cultural absolutes, it also ultimately leaves us short. If we hold onto postmodern belief beyond its timeliness, it becomes less and less helpful. If we extend it to an extreme, the result is increasingly absurd and dangerous belief. (see What Cultural Maturity is Not #2: Postmodern Pseudo-Significance).
Anything-Goes Truth. When we cling to postmodern assumptions, the postmodern recognition that various people legitimately view the world in different ways gets replaced by belief that makes one choice as good as any other. If we continue doing so, truth becomes arbitrary, a function of little more than whim. At postmodern thought’s extreme, we get anything-goes beliefs in which randomness and ironic cleverness masquerade as meaning. At a personal level, this ultimately crazy result leads to an increasingly prevalent moral aimlessness. At a cultural level it results in “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and all manner of exploitation in the name of significance. Ultimately, its most damaging consequence may be that it undermines attempts to articulate a new cultural story, to establish principles that can effectively guide us in a postmodern world.
Artificial Stimulation as Meaning. People have always been vulnerable to confusing simple excitation with significance—witness if-it-bleeds-it-leads journalism and pornography. But in an anything-goes world, this dynamic can amplify dramatically—to the point that the effect becomes essentially that of an addicting drug. (Addicting drugs work by artificially mimicking fulfillment and meaning.) In recent decades many movies have come to be about little more than shootings, car crashes, and explosions. More recently, we find video games overtly employing addictive jolts of excitation to keep people engaged. This addictive dynamic presents one of the future’s greatest dangers—as artificial intelligence, big data, and related advances give us the potential to produce ever more powerful and highly targeted digital “designer drugs.” The fact that we are not more actively in conversation about this danger is crazy—and a further reflection of Transitional Absurdity.
The Right Hand Prevails—to the Point of Ludicrousness.
Earlier I described how cultural belief has evolved over the course of history from ways of understanding in which more archetypally feminine (we could say more connectedness-oriented, or simple more “left-hand”) sensibilities prevailed—as with tribal experience—to today, when more archetypally masculine (more difference-oriented or “right-hand”) sensibilities largely hold sway. With some Transitional Absurdities the right-hand dominance is extended to a point that we fail to question quite crazy conclusions. `Materialism Run Amok. Numerous important thinkers have alerted us to the importance of rethinking our modern concepts of wealth and progress (see Rethinking Progress). If advancement is to continue, we must leave behind making material achievement our bottom line and learn to measure wealth and progress in terms of all the diverse elements that contribute to meaningful lives. We encounter a familiar wealth-related Transitional Absurdity in the unending triviality of modern mass-consumer culture where what we buy, in effect, comes to define meaning. We encounter a related progress-related example in the common “growth is always good” assumptions of modern economists.
Techno-Utopian Belief. People today often assume, without giving it great thought, that technologies yet on the horizon can solve the world’s problems. At the least, this assumption ignores the fact that the ability to invent and the capacity to use invention wisely are not at all the same. Progress-related Transitional Absurdities take their extreme in techno-utopian belief—in which computer power becomes our ultimate salvation and takes on almost spiritual implications. The result is titillating, simplistic-answer escape from the need to think in more encompassing and mature ways. (see What Cultural Maturity it Not #1: Techno-Utopian Delusions).
Rationality as Ideology (might we say stupidity?). The Age of Reason made rationality intelligence’s ideal and end point. With Cultural Maturity, we better recognize that intelligence has multiple aspects (see Multiple Intelligences). Indeed, the ability to consciously draw on multiple aspects of intelligence comes close to defining culturally mature perspective (see Integrative Meta-perspective: Making Sense of Cultural Maturity’s Cognitive Reordering.) When we miss the fact that intelligence is multiple, our rationality ends up limiting our ability to understand deeply—to be rational in the fullest sense.
In my book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, I write about how this common failing presents a major obstacle for education—both higher education and the education of young people. The whole of our cognitive complexity—all of intelligence—is needed if any of Cultural Maturity’s needed new capacities is to make sense and be effectively applied. For this reason, higher education’s Age of Reason assumption that rationality is truth’s end point gets in the way of higher education’s ability to address fundamental issues of our time—and ultimately of its ability to provide effective cultural leadership. With education for younger people, we encounter a related kind of blindness in the huge emphasis we now give to standardized testing. Besides measuring only the most trivial aspects of what we need for times ahead, such testing distracts from the creativity of teaching and depth of student engagement that acquiring culturally mature capacities requires (see Education).
Another place where the act of making the rational ideology threatens well-being is with emerging advances in artificial intelligence. While the potential benefits of A.I. are great, numerous important thinkers have also warned that A.I. could be our undoing. I’ve proposed that the key to this not being the case lies with how we think about intelligence (see The Key to Artificial Intelligence Not Being the End of Us). In a purely rational sense, computers are already much smarter than we are. With time, they should have no problem out-competing us. But this picture changes radically when we understand intelligence more systemically. We stand at a fork in the road. We can use A.I. to make the deeper aspects of intelligence irrelevant—with our undoing very possibly the result. Or we can use A.I. to free up time and resources so that we can apply the multiple aspects of intelligence in the most encompassing—and wise—ways.
Exploitation of Forgotten Sensibilities.
We also find absurdities—and dangers—that come from the exploitation of sensibilities and values that have come to have diminishing influence with modern age realities—for example, the artistic, the world of children, community, the life of the body, and the spiritual. Precisely because the sensibilities that they reference have been largely “forgotten,” these further examples may not be as readily recognized as those I’ve listed previously, but they are just as important. Because transitional dynamics leave us distanced from these essential aspects of who we are—and overshooting the mark leaves us distanced even further—their power becomes readily co-opted.
Receptivity’s Last Remnants. The word “receptive” perhaps best captures the archetypally feminine. Receptivity is about taking in. It is needed for any deep capacity to listen, for sensuality and pleasure, and if we are to effectively know what most moves us and thus understand meaning in our lives. Yet in spite of the fact that receptivity is so fundamental, when I make reference to it today, very often people barely recognize what I am talking about.
Today’s last faint remnants of receptivity can be easily exploited. In part this is because we are so distanced from the receptive and its working. As much it is because receptivity’s rarity can amplify the felt importance even of imposters. I think of how shopping for many people has today become receptivity’s most frequent—and most fulfilling—expression. We see a related elevation of the most surface layers of experience with how “likes” and “clicks” have become defining measures of significance and how “selfies” have become modern signifiers of identity.
Art and the Seductive Power of Advertising. What is today’s most prominent and influential art form? Hand’s down, at least in terms of money spent, it is advertising. It is important to appreciate that this fact turns art’s ultimate purpose on its head. Throughout history, art has served to give expression to newly emerging themes in the human story (think of the Renaissance presaging modern age understanding). In this way, it has been the voice for a particularly essential kind of truth. While advertising played a positive role in the rise of modern economic forms, today it has become little more than a form of highly sophisticated lying—using the language of art to manipulate (see Advertising and Art).
Modern advertising’s consequences are particularly damaging when that power is directed at children—who are vulnerable not just because they are innocent, but because the language of advertising draws specifically on the imagination-based aspects of intelligence through which children most find meaning. I consider advertising directed at the young intended only to generate profit as a particularly egregious form of child abuse (see Child Abuse and the Marketplace).
Exploiting Our Hunger for Human Connectedness. Connectedness was paramount in our tribal beginnings—to be excluded from the tribe would be tantamount to nonexistence. Over the course of history, close bonds in community have gradually given way to a reality in which individuality becomes what most defines us. Today, we can find ourselves at once hungry for community and distanced from parts of ourselves needed for deep connection. One result is that we become vulnerable to confusing the most trivial kinds of “connectedness” with human relationship—a fact exploited by advertising and popular media (for many people they provide the most reliable images of emotional closeness) and increasingly by social media. While much in social media meets real needs, as much or more is ludicrous and a distraction from the essential task in our time of learning to engage both ourselves and others with new depth.
Confusion about the Body. Body intelligence was primary in our cultural beginnings (everyone knew the tribal songs and dances). Over time we have become increasingly distanced from body sensibility. With Transitional times, people come to live increasingly on the body’s surface. This circumstance can leave us both confused about our bodies and vulnerable to having whatever body connectedness remains exploited for economic gain.
This recognition provides another way to think about the roots of addiction—whether the substance is a physical drug, food, or the artificial simulation of an electronic device. Too often we lack the basic bodily feedback we need to distinguish real meaning from artificial substitutes. We see this same disconnect in today’s obsession with the most surface aspects of physical appearance (witness our current infatuation with plastic surgery) and with the use of sex to sell almost every kind of product. We have become so used to the trivialization and exploitation of the body that we fail to recognize that we are violating much in ourselves that is most precious.
Co-opting the Spiritual. Given that the spiritual represents the ultimate expression of the more left-hand, receptive, archetypally feminine part of our natures (see Religion), we should expect it to suffer some particularly striking Transitional Absurdities. Very often today we see remarkably simple-minded conclusions in the spiritual/religious realm. I think in particular of fundamentalist “prosperity theology” beliefs that make it all about individual advantage and the easy-answer solutions of the more utopian of New Age thinking.
One religion-related Transition Absurdity example is so familiar in our experience that we might miss it altogether. I include it because it helps remind us that Transitional Absurdities have their origins in big-picture, long-term dynamics. A major portion of what we tend to do during the Christmas holidays is correctly thought of as Transitional Absurdity. Christmas today has little connection with the holiday’s mystical roots and if we are honest, very little to do with anything religious at all. It has become primarily a celebration of buying things—of materiality—in essence a celebration of spirituality’s opposite. We don’t like to acknowledge this fact because what remains represents a last vestige of something that has been deep and precious. But it is hard to deny.
Our Modern Crisis of Purpose. Beyond such specific Transitional Absurdities, a more encompassing way in which overshooting the mark manifests brings us back to today’s broader Crisis of Purpose. In part, the fact that we would experience such a crisis is a function simply of the loss of familiar truths. But if the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate, it is just as much a function of the kind of disconnectedness that produces more particular overshooting-the-mark Transitional Absurdities. Actions have no meaning estranged from their relational contexts. And freedom severed from the flesh from which our unique human capacities arise stops being freedom at all. Such recognition is not pleasant. But all of this is very real. And these realities are not just absurd; if we extend them any great distance into the future, they become insanity.
How the Concept of Cultural Maturity Helps Us.
The recognition of Transitional Absurdity can serve as an important kind of teacher. But as I’ve suggested, for such recognition to help us in this way, we must apply the concept with care. As we find with other tools of critique, the concept of Transitional Absurdity can easily become a repository for any phenomenon that our particular worldview might find aversive. For the concept to provide benefit, we have to appreciate that Transitional Absurdity represents a very specific notion that requires nuanced discernment.
But with such careful discernment, the concept provides essential insight for going forward. It does so in multiple ways. As a start, the concept of Transitional Absurdity helps us make sense of why, in our time, we should see the disturbing results that I have described. The fact that these results are predicted at the least makes them more understandable.
The concept of Transitional Absurdity also helps us recognize how what we see may have more positive implications than we might assume. I’ve introduced the notion that the reason these disturbing circumstances are predictable is that they reflect stage-specific dynamics within larger, ultimately creative mechanisms. In the end, they are wholly consistent with Cultural Maturity’s realization—and thus with hope. Arguably, the only alternative interpretation if the concept of Transitional Absurdity is not correct may be that we are reaching the end of humanity’s grand experiment. In addition, the concept of Transitional Absurdity helps us by alerting us to the kinds of actions that can provide real benefit. This final benefit has both specific and big-picture aspects. The more specific aspect relates to how Cultural Maturity’s changes bring the new capacities that are needed if we are to address the critical challenge before us. Transitional Absurdities highlight the need for these new capacities and some of what they might make possible. As example here I’ve pointed toward the importance of a new maturity in our relationship to limits. The more big-picture aspect relates to the recognition that the antidote to each of the kinds of unpleasantness that I have described is, in the end, the same: Cultural Maturity and the more sophisticated ways of thinking and acting that it makes possible.
These multiple kinds of benefit come together in an additional, more everyday way in which recognizing the fact of Transitional Absurdity can assist us. The concept can help us avoid responding to circumstances in less-than-useful ways. Without the needed perspective, any of the specific examples I’ve described can distract us, leaving us vulnerable to having our precious creative energy sidetracked. We can get caught up in the lunacy of political soap opera or become irate that some particular issue is met with denial.
Such reactions are understandable. And certainly it is important to speak out strongly when we encounter absurdity. But responding reactively to how others might hide from the obvious is seldom, in the end, a good use of attention and resources. It rarely does any good. And responding reactively ignores an essential recognition that follows if the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate: Most of the idiocy we see today should, with time, do itself in. If we miss this recognition, our reactions end up feeding into—and prolonging—the absurdity. If an issue really matters, the task is to best make sense of what is going on and to identify and support solutions. This maturity of response asks more of a person. But in the end it is what produces actions that make a difference.
The recognition that Transitional Absurdities carried very far into the future become not just absurd, but insane raises some obvious questions about what we should anticipate in the decades immediately ahead. Note that we see, simultaneously, two trajectories with markedly different implications. While Cultural Maturity suggests important new possibility, the fact of Transitional Absurdities suggests something quite different if such blindnesses continue on to any great degree—and it is likely that many of them will. We may well need to confront much that is quite crazy in times ahead. `Whatever proves to be the case, we can take comfort in the guidance implied by the concept of Transitional Absurdity. No matter how bumpy the road ahead, the task remains the same—and ultimately straightforward. We need to engage what we find with the perspective—indeed the wisdom—that Cultural Maturity’s more encompassing vantage provides.