Cultural Maturity, Limits, and “Good Enough” Solutions

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

While Cultural Maturity paints an ultimately affirming picture, for it to help us, we need always keep hopeful conclusions in perspective. Certainly we must not interpret what we see in ways that diminish the fact of real limits. Such possibility does not make limits any less. Quite the opposite, it constantly and incorruptibly affirms them.

That this might seem a contradiction can generate confusion when I present the concept of Cultural Maturity to audiences who are not familiar with it. We can legitimately think of Cultural Maturity as an overarching  “answer” to current problems. But culturally mature solutions commonly require humility with regard to how long results can take to happen. Most often, too, they require that we replace ideas we might have of ideal and final answers with answers of a more “good enough” sort. In the end “good enough” can translate into something better than our ideal images might promise (as with the previous health care example). But that is not where we get to begin.

We find some of the most disturbing constraints in limits to our ability to solve pressing world problems—even with the best of solutions. We might appropriately assume that if we can just apply culturally mature leadership and culturally mature policies, concerns can be eliminated. Often it is limits to how much we can change things—or at least to the speed and directness with which change can happen—that culturally mature perspective most makes apparent.

Transition to a carbon neutral economy is essential and possible. But it won’t happen overnight, and significant damage will likely take place before appropriate greenhouse gas levels can be achieved. Elimination of nuclear weapons is not absurd to hope for. But we will likely first see an expansion of the number of states with such weapons, and quite possibly the use of such weapons somewhere in the world. World population must and can stabilize. But we will have to absorb further significant increases before numbers level off.

With each of these examples it may be possible to accomplish the objective. But real limits exist to just how quickly, and also to the extent simple policy can produce the desired results.

Addressing world conflict makes a particularly poignant example of such limits. There are places in the world where conflict seems never-ending—in parts of Africa, in the Middle East. The consequences are commonly horrific. It would seem reasonable to expect that culturally mature leadership could bring an end to such carnage. Instead, culturally mature perspective commonly teaches us that when conflict is based on ongoing projections and little culturally mature perspective is available within the systems themselves, intervention just as often makes things worse as better. This does not mean that the effort is not often well-rewarded. But peacekeeping is hard enough. The establishing of peace through outside intervention is often nearly impossible.

Such possible confusions noted, we can again affirm the hope implied by a culturally mature relationship with limits. Confronting limits, done courageously, makes the hard questions inescapable. But at the same, it also begins to reveal a fullness, creativity, and complexity of possibility that otherwise is not available to comprehend.

One of the ways inviolable limits contribute to hope can seem a paradox. Culturally Mature perspective, while it requires new sophistication, in appreciating limits is in an important sense more “ordinary.” It is about doing a better job of recognizing the obvious. Appreciating the complexity—and ultimately frailty—of an ecosystem requires confronting hard realities. But it is about nothing more, ultimately, than seeing more clearly what has always been there to see. Recognizing the limits inherent to projections—whether the more deific sort of projection we reserve for lovers or leaders or those found with demonic mythologizings—similarly requires that we radically expand our thinking. But, again, in the end, it is about better recognizing “just what is.”

George Santayana proposed that “Wisdom comes by disillusionment.” The good news, at least if both Santayana and the concept of Cultural Maturity are correct, is that such disillusionment is just that. It is loss only in the sense that it requires us to set aside once helpful, but no longer timely illusions and simplifications. Confronting inviolable limits stretches us fundamentally, but, in the end, recognizing limits is about nothing more than engaging what is and always has been—but now with a new depth. A successful response to the challenge of limits makes existence newly full and inspiring—but only because existence is full and inspiring.

Another, perhaps surprising, way a mature understanding of limits contributes to hope draws on limits to what we can know and predict.  Traditional—either heroic or romantic—mythologies have unknowable outcomes in the sense that we cannot know ahead of time whether we will succeed or fail. But we at least have a general image of what success or failure would look like. Culturally mature success is of a more humble sort, but it also inherently involves potential outcomes beyond what we can anticipate. Or, more accurately, we can’t anticipate the particulars. We can anticipate that what transpires will reflect the more full, complex, whole-box-of-crayons understanding that comes with mature perspective.

This possibility-infused picture has particularly fascinating implications when applied to our long-term human future. Cultural Maturity alerts us to the limits inherent to images of ever-onward-and-upward material advancement and human dominion. But if we are to fully embrace the possible, we need not forget how deeply limits to knowing play a role in our ability to even imagine our future. We reflexively replace outmoded images of progress with the hope simply that we can have a sustainable and survivable future. But the appropriate expectation, if we can find the maturity to accept inviolable limits, is not this, or at least this alone. The appropriate hope is for a world that is creative—and potentially rewarding—in ways that we cannot yet imagine. More specifically, it is a world newly imbued with all-the-crayons-in-the-box potential.