Individual and Group “Parts Work”

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future

The fact that mature truth requires more of our cognitive complexity suggests that experiential methods should have important roles to play with Cultural Maturity’s tasks.  They do.  Applied well, experiential approaches can be used to get at culturally mature truth with a directness difficult to achieve with words alone.  A closer look provides further important insight into the nature of culturally mature truth.

To be successful, experiential approaches must be specifically structured with this in mind.  As we might guess from this discussion of the limitations and well as gifts inherent to various ways of knowing, including non-rational sensibilities by itself does not do the trick.  Techniques that tap feelings, the imagination, or the intelligence of the body have been used traditionally toward one of two ends.  They have been applied to make learning more fun (used like decoration for rational intelligence conclusions).  Or they have been  utilized in ways that make the non-rational primary, whether for catharsis or for more personal or spiritual inquiry.  Neither helps much with the tasks of Cultural Maturity.  Indeed each can mislead us into thinking conclusions are integrative when they are not.

The difference with approaches able to do the trick is that they are structured specifically so as to engage experience systemically.  No method can take a person into culturally mature territory unless that person is close already (culturally mature capacity is Capacitance-dependent).  But certain “hands-on” methods can, if led skillfully, almost demand that experience’s larger complexity be engaged.

The following descriptions illustrate two such methods.  I describe these methods in part because they represent useful tools with broad application.  But as much their importance lies with how each helps us with the question of what truth becomes in a culturally mature world.  Besides their practical usefulness, each of these hands-on techniques offers a quite precise  “definition” for culturally mature truth—better than simple words or diagrams can achieve.

The first example illustrates an approach that focuses primarily on internal psychological complexities. I use it most often with individuals.  The second approach has greatest application with more cultural concerns.  It requires a group.

Individual “parts work”:

The following description is excerpted from work with a well-respected, local environmental activist who recently came to me for therapy:

Bill’s (not his real name) father had died.  The most immediate reason he had come to me was the depression the loss had evoked.  But with time, along with addressing grief, he recognized a further concern—what he described as a war within himself.

His father had left him a beautiful piece of land that had been in the family for generations.  He loved the place and planned to construct a cabin and move there when he retired.  But new zoning regulations had made the land unbuildable.  Suddenly, his plans were on hold. He felt deeply sad—and angry.  He also found himself torn from the comfortable moorings of a once-unquestioned set of beliefs.  He was known for banging heads with property rights proponents and more often than not emerging victorious. Now disparate internal voices were advocating not just different social policies, but two very different—and contradictory—views of the world.

He found distress and confusion in this conflict and asked if we could somehow explore it.  I agreed.  But I recognized that such work would present some difficulties. He was an exceptionally intelligent man with well-thought-out, not easily questioned beliefs.  We would have to do more than just talk if I was to be of help.

I began by having him imagine that the warring parts were like two characters in a play.  I asked him to see them on a stage and to describe everything he could about each character—what it wore, its age, the expression on its face.  Then I had him invite them into the room. The environmentalist sat stage left, sensitive features, longish hair.  The property rights advocate stood more distant, stage right, stockier in build, baseball cap tucked between his crossed arms. After a bit, he too sat down.

I instructed Bill to turn to the two figures and describe the issue he wanted to address.  After a bit of initial self-consciousness, Bill proceeded to talk with them about the land, the new regulations, the deep conflict he felt. Then I suggested that he go over to each chair and respond as that character—become it and give voice to what it felt about the questions at hand.  I had him return to his own chair when each character had said his peace and from there to respond and to follow up with any further questions he might have.  I instructed him to let himself be surprised by what each character might say.

This back and forth went through several iterations, first Bill speaking, then in turn, each of the parts.  The character in the left chair spoke of the importance of protecting the environment in its natural state. The character on the right argued that government had no right to dictate what a person did with private property.  Both expressed a longing to live in such a beautiful place.  As the dialogue progressed, Bill’s relationships with each of them deepened.  He became increasingly able to find a place in himself where he could respect what each character had to say.

After some time, Bill again turned to me.  He said he felt a bit disoriented, but that the conversation had helped.  It hadn’t given him final answers for how to approach the property issue.  But it had given him a solider place to stand for making decisions.  He commented that much of what the two characters said had indeed surprised him—and moved him.  He found it particularly enlightening that each character seemed essentially well-intentioned.  Before he had framed the environmental/property rights conflict as a battle between good and ignorance (if not worse).  The work showed him that it was more accurately a battle between competing goods.  It had been hard for him not to identify with the environmentalist, but he recognized that in fact each figure had useful things to say—and each also had blindnesses.  He had begun to see a more full and creative picture.

Later I asked Bill what implications the exercise might have for his professional work.  We decided to continue with the hands-on approach.  I tossed him particularly thorny questions that pitted environmental and property rights concerns.  His task was to use his two inner “consultants” to help him determine, in each case, the most effective and fair approach.  The result in each case was a deeper understanding of the dilemmas involved and, in several instances, novel solutions.

Even more important than the answers this type of approach can provide is the way it supports the ability to hold the expanded perspective needed to maturely engage creative complexity.  In some small way, it most always does this not just for the specific issues confronted, but for a person’s understanding as a whole.  One of the litmus tests for success with this kind of approach is the appearance of integrative shifts with regard to issues not directly addressed.   (This example is highly simplified.  It may take several months of work before a person can sit solidly in that third chair.  But the example illustrates a general type of approach that is both straightforward and often highly effective.)

Group “parts work”:

The second approach applies the same underlying methodology but is designed for work with groups.  It is most effective when at least a few people in the group are already capable of venturing a ways into culturally mature territory. Work I once did with a religious organization torn by the question of abortion provides good illustration.

Abortion had become not just a contentious issue for the group, but a potentially divisive one.  The group included about an equal number of people who identified themselves as pro-choice and pro-life.  People feared the issue could fracture their long-cherished bonds.  It was not long after getting started with the group that the conversation became stuck in the usual tired ways.

The group agreed to engage together in an exercise.  I picked three people from each camp and had them sit in the center of the room.  The rest of us sat in a circle around them.  I invited the six people within the circle to one by one express their views, doing so in as specific and personal a way as possible.  (To stir things up a bit, I instructed one of each group of three to advocate for a position opposite to that which they actually held.)  The task of people in the outer circle was to try to hold that larger picture, to step beyond the knee-jerk polarization.  I asked them to listen, to note the truths and the possible partialities in what each person said—to engage the question just as subtly and complexly as they could.

After the six active participants had completed their statements, the people in the outer circle worked together to try to frame and address the question more systemically.  These probings stretched those on each side of the issue.  The pro-choice advocates had to admit that while abortion may or may not be murder, it is certainly ends a potential life.  The pro-life proponents were pushed to acknowledge the dangers that making abortion illegal presents and the validity of the distinction between life and viable life, however one interprets the implications of that distinction. The conversation was not easy.  Significant tension often filled the room.  But by the end, most present had glimpsed possibilities that they had not seen before.

Besides providing powerful methodology, each of these hands-on techniques offers a way of “defining” culturally mature truth.  I’ve described how mature perspective is about more than just being objective—watching the play from some elevated balcony.  It is much more involved—stretched, impassioned, challenging—than this.  I’ve also emphasized that mature truth is about more than some middle ground, some place of compromise.  Compromise can reduce tension, but it gets us no closer to integrative perspective.  These methods helps clarify such distinctions.

Mature systemic perspective with parts work is about sitting solidly in that third chair.  We tend to think of truth as the conclusions we reach.  But culturally mature truth is as much about how we hold truth.  In the example with Bill, specific conclusions, while important, were less significant that his growing ability to embody the more systemic reality that third chair represented.  Doing so gave him an anchor, helped him be confident that even if appropriate action was not fully clear, that he was asking good questions—or, at the least, asking them from the right place—and taking his best shot at including what needed to be considered.  If gave him a reliable point of reference for an imploratory relationship to truth.

Note that the third chair’s more Whole-Person vantage is not objective—at least in the looking from the balcony sense.  Its “objectivity,” if we wish to call it that, lies in its ability to appreciate the system’s entirety (with much of that entirety far from conscious awareness).  In addition, it presents a fundamentally different, more explicitly creative kind of worldview than that associated with either compromise or agreement.  This is definition in a different sense than we are accustomed.  But it is concrete and complete in a way that more customary articulation alone cannot achieve.

In the second example, the circumference outside the positions of polar advocacy provides the needed definition. (The pro-choice and pro-life groups only made a first step in getting there.  If they had progressed further we might have seen not just mutual respect, but a commitment to finding ways to bring together their seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints.)  Similarly, it is not objective in the seeing everything sense.  We can see the territory’s general expanse, but “from the balcony” clarity is something different.  And it is a much more difficult enterprise than averaging or splitting the difference.  Staying at that Whole-System circumference can be hard.  A person is easily pulled into the pole’s intensities, particularly if the issue touches close to home.  But if a person can resist, the needed truths are there to be found.  Mature truth lies in finding the solidity and sense of rightness knowable only at the circumference’s at once most demanding and most creative inclusiveness.

Sitting in that third chair and getting our arm’s around an issue’s circumference are in the end just different “definitions” for the same result.  We can express it in different ways.  Each is about that capacity for Integrative Meta-Perspective.  Alternative, each is about a Whole-Person/Whole-System relationship to truth.  Each in an analogous way leaves behind creatively partial perspectives and makes visible—and in important ways obvious—a more complete, deep systemic picture.

We can think of culturally mature perspective as nothing more than alternative descriptions of reality as “seen” from the vantage such hands-on approaches encourage.