Cultural Maturity and Reengagement

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future:

Mature perspective’s picture of the future takes us unswervingly forward, but at the same time it implies something new with regard to the past. Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes do more than just help us better understand the past, though there is that. They invite, indeed require, a deeper connection with the past—or, more accurately, of aspects of ourselves to which we have had more ready access in times past.

That they do is essential to moving forward in any way that can serve us. Big picture perspective reveals what Creative Systems Theory call the Dilemma of Trajectory. Our customary picture of history describes a steady, if sometimes bumpy, upward progression. History is about the rise of civilizations. But we really can’t continue on in this way. There is, of course, all the damage that unthinking progress could wreak upon us. But at a more fundamental level we confront limits to how far culture’s story as we have conceived it (and not just recently, but at any time in the past) can take us.

Going forward as we have would sever us from ourselves in ways that would have calamitous consequences. Polarity—and its evolving significance through culture’s evolution—provides a simple way to see how this is the case illustrates. History’s story describes ever-increasing distinction between polar tendencies—between humankind and nature, mind and body, the individual and the collective, the objective and the subjective. Up until now, this evolutionary direction has served us—indeed been key to culture’s great advances. But it really can’t continue. A further distancing of ourselves from nature, the body, the collective, or the subjective would severe us from much that most makes us who we are.

Cultural Maturity’s threshold does something we have not seen before with the stage-specific truths it leaves behind. While is steps decisively and absolutely beyond them, at once it invites a new and deeper connection with the sensibilities they represent. This mechanism, what Creative Systems Theory calls Reengagement, reconciles the Dilemma of Trajectory. It offers a critical further option beyond going forward as we have, going back, or collapse.

We see this mechanism most readily with our most recent truths. Rather than discard the rationalist, objectivist, materialist assumptions of Modern Age thought, the way we have traditionally discarded the assumption of the past age as we move into a new one, Cultural Maturity makes them part of complexity’s now expanded picture. In the end, Cultural Maturity does something similar with regard to earlier cultural truths. None of Cultural Maturity’s key concepts make full sense without this additional mechanism. The result is a kind of temporal “bridging.”

Reengagement can cause initial confusion and is easily misinterpreted. But once understood Reengagement provides important insight into how Cultural Maturity changes the way we think and act. It also provides essential perspective for separating conclusions that might masquerade as mature thought from the real thing, as well as additional evidence for Cultural Maturity’s conclusions.

We find an every day sort of support for Reengagement. Most anyone who spends much time in settings we would call not yet modern quickly recognizes that much—and much of real significance—has been lost as well as gained in the phenomenon we call progress. There are clearly qualities and affinities present in these earlier realities that are not only important, but somehow essential to recapture if our future world is to be a healthy place. Few people remain happy for long if plunked down in a cultural reality earlier than their own. But going backwards is specifically not what we are talking about. The point is that sensibilities before forgotten—and forgotten or good reasons—are somehow now becoming newly pertinent.

Cultural Maturity’s developmental analogy provides additional support for the concept of Reengagement, and, with this, important insight into the mechanisms involved. Growing up takes us through a sequence of maturational stages that are about more than just becoming more adept—they make organizational leaps. For Reengagement to make sense, we must appreciate an important dynamic inherent to such leaps. Along with offering new possibilities, they involve necessary forgettings—amnesias for realities we’ve moved beyond. With each organizational leap, doors close to past experience. Adolescents, we find, have a difficult time making sense of the reality of young children even though this is a world that they have only recently left behind. And while we might expect young adults to be our great experts on the attitudes and needs of adolescence, it is often they who find adolescent assumptions most baffling.

People can find the idea that development involves amnesias strange, but at some level we all know this is how things work. Children universally believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (or their culture’s equivalents). And most all adults think of such figures as fantasy at best. Yet few parents try to convince their children of the irrationality of such belief. In some way parents know that such “illusion” is essential to being children. More, they recognize at some level that something very special lives in this illusion that they can only faintly recollect. Its elusive presence is much of what makes such childhood delight special to adults.

With such developmental amnesias we forget more than just memories. We disconnect from the organizing intelligences of the realities we have left behind—the primacy of body intelligence during infancy, of imagination during childhood, of special emotional and affiliative sensibilities during adolescence. We also disconnect from the values and ways of seeing the world that accompany each intelligence. With each stage we distance ourselves from fundamental dimensions of our being.

Such forgetting serves a critical developmental purpose: It keeps us from falling back into familiar but no longer timely worlds of experience. Growing up requires not just separation from family as home, but also separation from the ways of organizing experience that at different, earier times have served as our cognitive/experiential homes.

Our success with this essential development task sets the stage for Reengagement. With life’s second half, we witness an almost opposite mechanism. Once the basic structures of identity and belief have been established, the protective doors provided by these developmental amnesias can begin to reopen. We no longer need to fear the past. Memories from earlier times in life often become newly available. And of ultimately greater significance, maturity bit by bit reconnects us with those earlier ordering principles—the intelligences, values, aesthetics, and creative juxtapositions that have given each developmental stage its unique character and power. We reengage forgotten dimensions of who we are.

Many of the most rewarding delights of aging are direct products of Reengagement. People’s later years frequently bring a rediscovered child-like sense of playfulness and wonder. Aristophanes observed that “Old men are twice boys.” There is also the way grandparents often more readily connect with the worlds of their grandchildren than do a child’s parents—a product at least in part of this Reengagement dynamic.

The important recognition for understanding Cultural Maturity’s changes is that Reengagement is essential to maturity and follows from its mechanisms. The perspective, compassion, humility—and wisdom—we associate with mature adulthood requires this gradual reconnecting. This is not wisdom’s only source. There are also all the learnings that have come from a lifetime of experience. And there are the more specific learnings that challenge us as we approach Cultural Maturity’s threshold—as with our work here, about the dangers of simplistic conclusions, the importance of appreciating limits, and the need to address truth and purpose more directly. But first-half learnings provide little more than cleverness without Reengagement. And the more specific learnings of mature perspective require Reengagement to make any deep sense. Pascal observed that “wisdom takes us back to our childhood” (a useful recognition as long as we appreciate that this is not all it does).

This dual mechanism—first necessary amnesias, then later Reengagement—is something we see with all human generative processes.  Amnesias serve like cogs so the wheels of life do not turn backward during creativity’s fragile early stages. Once form is sufficiently established, the past stops being something to fear. It becomes instead a necessary part of mature understanding’s larger, more complete picture.

If the analogy between personal maturity and our species’ time in culture evolutionary story holds, then we might reasonably expect that, in a similar way, the past—or more precisely, the underlying realities that have made the past what it has been—would play a newly generative role in our species’ future. If, on top of this, the claim that personal developmental and cultural change each organize creatively proves sound, this argument becomes even more solid. Grasping the multiplicities and coherences of our deep systemic natures should require not just an appreciation of current complexities, but also a deeper understanding of—and connection with—human complexity through time.

Add the concept of Reengagement to the rest of the new cognitive ingredients, and the Dilemma of Trajectory stops being a dilemma. That Cultural Maturity might seem to be at once about going forward and about retracing our steps is exactly what we would predict. Reengagement is not at all about going back, and not really even about reconnecting with the past—what we “reengage” is forgotten sensibilities as they exist in the present. But it does bring new appreciation for aspects of experience better recognized in times past. That new possibilities might exist beyond what had seemed an ultimate limit begins to make better sense. It becomes not just reasonable, but predicted, that we might be able to  “progress” in ways specifically right for our time.