Cultural Maturity: A Snapshot

The long-form article that follows this one more formally introduces the concept of Cultural Maturity. It makes a solid place to start for understanding this critical notion that can initially be a stretch to get one’s mind around. I wrote this “snapshot” description in response to requests to do an even briefer introductory piece that might be more appropriate for use by the media. 

My contribution is different from that of most people who describe themselves as futurists. My primary focus lies not so much with technological advancement than with the human dimension. I might best be described as a “cultural psychiatrist.”

One observation from my years of wearing the cultural psychiatrist’s hat particularly stands out. Not only do critical challenges require new perspectives and human capacities, the new abilities needed to address very different future challenges have much in common. Developmental language provides a simple way to describe what these needed new abilities ask us of. Our times are demanding a critical “growing up” as a species. I speak of the need for a new Cultural Maturity.

Cultural Maturity is not as easy a notion as the simple phrase “growing up” might suggest. At the least it requires that we think more long-term than we are used to. We first saw inklings of its changes over a hundred years ago. And it may be another hundred years before some of the more demanding aspects of what the concept of Cultural Maturity proposes are broadly recognized. But the evidence to support the concept is strong. And with familiarity, people tend to find its conclusions not just powerfully useful, but straightforward—ultimately common sense.

Most of us at some level appreciate that something like Cultural Maturity will be necessary. We get that a sane and healthy future will require, at the least, that we be more intelligent in our choices. For example, people recognize that addressing climate change—and environmental concerns more generally—will require that we be smarter in our engagement of complex realities. Most of us also recognize something further, that given the magnitude and the subtlety of the challenges we face and the potential consequences of our decisions, our choices must be not just more intelligent, but also more wise. Cultural Maturity is about realizing the greater nuance and depth of understanding—we could say wisdom—that human concerns of every sort today demand of us.

The observation that gives the concept of Cultural Maturity its name helps introduce it. Human culture in times past has functioned like a parent in the lives of individuals, providing us with our rules to live by, and in the process, a sense of identity and connectedness with others. Shared cultural absolutes have also protected us from life’s very real uncertainties and immense complexities.

But in today’s increasingly multi-faceted world, unquestioned cultural guideposts serve us less and less well. The implications of this loss are Janus-faced. Certainly it can bring a disturbing sense of absence. Combined with how our world has become more risk-filled and complicated, this weakening of familiar rules can leave us dangerously overwhelmed and disoriented.

But at the same time, these changes reveal possibilities that before now we could not have considered. Importantly, this is not just possibility in some postmodern, “anything-goes” sense. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how the same change processes that generate today’s loss of past absolutes also create the potential for new, more mature ways of thinking and being in the world.

The concept of Cultural Maturity is more than just a useful metaphor. It follows directly from Creative Systems Theory’s picture of how human systems grow and change. When I first developed the theory, I didn’t give these implications great attention. I was then most interested in the psychology of individuals. And when I did write about the theory’s application to cultural systems, I found greatest interest in how the theory could help us understand the past. Creative Systems Theory provides a dynamic and detailed picture of how previous chapters in culture’s developmental story have brought us to where we are today. (The website includes links to multiple Creative Systems Theory–related sites.)

But over time, I came to see that the most important implications of the theory have to do with today and the tasks ahead for the species. These recognitions altered the course of my life. I started the Institute for Creative Development to research these implications and to provide training in the new leadership skills the concept of Cultural Maturity suggests will be necessary. The larger portion of my writing in the years since has elaborated on those implications.

The concept of Cultural Maturity challenges the common assumption that Modern Age institutions and ways of thinking are end points and ideals—only needing further refinement. It describes how our future human well-being hinges on turning first pages in an essential next chapter in our human story. It also describes how, today, we are beginning to do so.

The concept assists us in four ways that together provide essential direction for going forward: First, it helps us make sense of the easily confusing times in which we live. It puts the challenges and changes we face today in larger perspective. Second, it provides a new guiding narrative. Having a new, more mature story to guide us becomes increasingly essential as the stories we’ve traditionally relied upon—from the American Dream to our various political and religious allegiances—cease to serve us. Third, the concept helps clarify the new skills and capacities that we will need if we are to successfully address the challenge before us. In doing so, it also provides guidance for practicing those needed new abilities. And fourth, the concept of Cultural Maturity points toward needed changes not just in what we think, but how we think. Culturally mature perspective does more than just provide greater clarity—it involves specific cognitive changes. These cognitive changes make possible new, more dynamic and encompassing ways of understanding.

Given that the third of these contributions—perspective with regard to needed new skills and capacities—ties most directly to the question of what specific future challenges will require of us, it warrants particular attention. Below I’ve briefly noted some of those new capacities. Most challenges ahead will require a combination of such new capabilities, but often one in particular stands out.

Coming to better tolerate uncertainty and complexity: Better tolerating uncertainty and complexity will be necessary to successfully addressing most any of today’s critical new challenges. The loss of past protective absolutes means that, both personally and collectively, we live in a more dynamic and complex world.

Getting beyond the us-versus-them assumptions of times past: This new capacity is most obviously pertinent to leaving behind the “chosen people/evil other” polarizations that have traditionally defined relationships between nations. But it is just as relevant to knee-jerk animosities between political parties that keep us from addressing policy decisions with the needed systemic sophistication and, more generally, to how social groups view one another.

Better appreciating the fact of real limits: Here I include inviable limits of every sort—limits to what we can often do, limits to what we can know and predict, and limits to what we can be for one another. Most immediately this new capacity is pertinent to addressing environmental limits, as with climate change. But the importance of better appreciating the fact of real limits is much more encompassing. For example, I’ve written extensively about how a new maturity in our relationship to death will be critical the health care’s future. Death confronts us with life’s ultimate limit—certainly to what we can know. And a key theme in the needed new chapter in love that I’ve also written about extensively is a new willingness to accept limits to what one person can be for another.

Learning to think about what matters in more systemically complete ways: This capacity is relevant most obviously to addressing what I speek of as our times’ “crisis of purpose.” Moving forward affectively will require that we define wealth and progress in ways that better address the full complexity of our human needs, and ultimately the whole of humanity and the planet.

Better understanding how events always happen in a context—here particularly in the context of their time in culture’s story: Being that the concept of Cultural Maturity is a developmental notion (it is about our time in culture’s story) this capacity has particularly direct pertinence to these reflections. More broadly, developmental perspective is essential if we are to make good policy decisions in our increasingly globalized world. For example, making effective sense of terrorism is impossible without a keen understanding of cultural stage differences.

A couple theoretical topics both make the concept of Cultural Maturity more understandable and provide important evidence. First, is that way culturally mature perspective is a product of specific cognitive changes. (see Integrative Meta-perspective: Cultural Maturity’s Cognitive Reordering).The fact that all of the new capacities I’ve just outlined follow directly from these changes helps substantiate the concept. There is also how a big-picture look at the evolution of culture through time provides a particularly compelling kind of evidence. What Creative Systems Theory calls the Dilemma Trajectory makes the idea of a need cultural “growing up” particularly hard to refute (see The Dilemma of Trajectory)

In the end, the best argument for the importance of the concept of Cultural Maturity is the most basic. Not just our future well-being, but perhaps even our survival, may depend on the new capacities it makes possible. We face a growing number of challenges that could, at the least, make human life decidedly unpleasant in times ahead. Meeting them effectively will require a maturity of thought and action that before now would have been beyond us.


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