The Critical Importance of Positive Images for the Future — and How the Concept of Cultural Maturity Provides a Provocative and Practical Candidate

[I have committed to writing a short article each month the applies Creative Systems Theory and the concept of Cultural Maturity to some essential question.]

Cynicism today is rampant. Few people hold positive expectations when it comes to the future. This lack of hopeful images has critical consequences. It is unlikely that we would encounter today’s escalating rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, and violence if people were more generally optimistic about what lies ahead. And we confront the simple fact that cynicism all too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If our future is to provide fulfillment, we must have compelling and realistic images of what that fulfillment would look like and how it might be achieved.

In my most recent book Insight: Creative Systems Theory’s Radical New Picture of Human Possibility, I describe how most at all current positive images ultimately fail at the task. Certainly this is the case with utopian pronouncements. Techno-utopian claims promise that new inventions will save us. But we know all too well that as often as new technologies provide benefit, they put us at risk. Invention can work as an answer only to the degree we are capable of using invention wisely. We also find utopian images of a more spiritual sort. For certain people, they can be particularly inspiring. But in the end, they reflect wishful thinking more than anything that can provide real guidance. And they commonly suffer from a more specific shortcoming. They tend to attract people who share specific idealized, ideological beliefs. We do not in our time need contemporary versions of time-worn “chosen people” narratives.

We also encounter more everyday “we have the answer” proclamations, for example, in the claims of a country’s various political parties. But such claims tend to be concerned most with the short term — with the next political or economic cycle. And there is a more specific giveaway that we are dealing with perspectives of a partial and thus ultimately limited sort. I’ve written extensively about how the fact that warring ideological beliefs juxtapose as polar opposites means that such ideas will not only necessarily fail at providing answers of any complete sort, they will fail at grasping the larger, more systemic questions that ultimately need to be addressed.

The Creative Systems Theory concept of Cultural Maturity provides an alternative kind of image that effectively takes us beyond such limitations. Rather than being utopian, we can think of it as a “new common sense.” Cultural Maturity describes a developmentally predicted next chapter in the human story, an essential “growing up” as a species. And set in the context of the theory’s encompassing picture of purpose, change, and interrelationship in human systems, it quite specifically concerns itself with the long term. Indeed, I have argued that Cultural Maturity’s changes may mark not just the beginning of a needed next cultural chapter, but the turning of initial pages in a new kind of story that should define our ultimate human task.

The simple fact that the concept of Cultural Maturity identifies a way forward means it supports hope. But more than just this, the fact that it is a developmental notion means that a positive future is not something we must create from whole cloth — at least its potential is developmentally built into who we are. Creative Systems Theory describes how Cultural Maturity is a predicted product of a specific kind of cognitive reordering, what it calls Integrative Meta-perspective. Integrative Meta-perspective manifests in more limited ways with the mature stages in any human formative process. With it, we become able to more fully step back from, and at once more deeply engage, all the systemic aspects of the process. Specifically with Cultural Maturity, that means coming to more consciously and fully embrace the whole of our human complexity. The result is a reality in which not just more complete understanding, but a new kind of possibility for wisdom, comes to prevail.

The theory also describes more specific new human capacities that follow from this cognitive reordering, ones it argues will be needed if we are to effectively address the important challenges ahead for the human species, and that we can practice. These capacities include the ability to address questions of every sort with a new kind of systemic completeness; a greater capacity to tolerate life’s very real uncertainties and complexities; an increased ability to acknowledge real limits and effectively assess risk; and the ability to better appreciate how human truths have evolved and the importance of context. They also include the ability to engage both identity and relationships of every sort in fundamentally new, more complete Whole-Person/Whole-Systems ways.

But just because Cultural Maturity’s changes are as potential built into us and the new capacities it makes possible can be practiced, that doesn’t mean this needed “growing up” in how we think and act is inevitable. We could well fail at what these changes ask of us. Consistent with the nature of developmental processes, it can be hard to grasp that a new chapter might exist from where we currently reside. And effectively taking on that new chapter’s demands necessarily stretches us. While all of Cultural Maturity’s changes eventually take us forward, in the short term we can find them disorienting and disturbing. Often today we react to their beginnings in less than positive ways, a kind of response that Creative Systems Theory calls Transitional Absurdity.

But for the essential task of providing a positive — compelling and practical — picture for the future, the concept of Cultural Maturity for me succeeds in a way that no other way of thinking has so far done. Indeed, if the concept of Cultural Maturity — or something very much like it — is not essentially correct, I find it hard to be ultimately optimistic. The concept of Cultural Maturity not only affirms that a way forward exists, it suggests that if we can succeed with what this way forward asks of us, the result could be not just positive, but profound.

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