In our post-modern age the idea of development and maturity are treated with great distrust. This is understandable, we had centuries of religions, power and money in the form of aristocracy and then the intellectual male dominated enlightenment establishment, all telling us what we should do, and how we should be. The vestiges of all this are still with us today, and piled on top is the manipulation of society by government propaganda and “market forces” i.e. multinational companies all bent on maintaining the status quo of the existing power and financial structures.
So it’s no wonder that we are cynical. The idea of anyone “defining reality” or saying what we “should do” or how we “should be” has the taste of patriarchy and the abuse of power associated with it. This is the battle that the post-modern philosophers, Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, fought for during the latter half of the twentieth century (post WW1 really). They argued that everything is relative and ‘reality’ a social construct, that there are no ‘universal’ realities. In effect since Sartre in the 1940’s there has been this call for each to define their own reality. In Art this goes back much earlier into the early Twentieth century, with, for example, Duchamp exhibiting a urinal in 1917.
Today there is a rejection of there being any “objective” reality and meaning in being a human being and instead there is the insistence on relativity, subjectivity and atheism. I am aware though that there is a huge irony here, because we still have such well established historic power structures and the hegemony of middle class capitalist version of democratic values that dominate our society. Whilst I can see the argument, that the process of really embedding this deconstruction and exposing and rooting out all those introjected power relationships in most people’s consciousness, still has a long way to go, it seems to me that as a society we have only taken on board extremely selectively only a small part of this perspective. We are largely still blind to the myriad ways that we de-power ourselves and accept the status quo. This is reflected in how our media both subtly and openly, ridicule, ignore and present as “mad”, ideas around the theme of human beings having a developmental potential.
There is a limited acceptance of lifelong development, that adult education and maturity are good things, that doing educative and stimulating things after you retire helps to keep the mind active, etc., etc. But none of this gets close to addressing the profound nature of what any individual’s journey has the potential to be in terms of realising our meaning, role and responsibility as conscious beings. It is as though there is a huge collective denial of the notion that there might be meaning and responsibility in our lives. It seems that this is too much to ask, life is so materially demanding and history is full of people manipulating others for sex, power and money.
Even in psychology and psychotherapeutic approaches there is the “intersubjective” perspective that looks in this direction. It argues correctly against the old ideal of the “rugged individual” pointing out that we are all profoundly “field dependant”, that our overriding needs are social and relational and environmentally dependant. So the influence of philosophers like Martin Buber with his “I-Thou” and the “between”, of Levinas with his “responsibility to the other” and of Gadamer with his “importance of conversation”, have flourished. The new consensus is that living a healthy life is to accept that the ‘here and now’ is all there is, and that we have to make the best of what is ultimately a meaningless existence. That there is no God to redeem us, no objective reality, only the meaning we can make for ourselves.
As Wilber argues, the downside of this necessary perspective is that society has developed a very narcissistic culture where the importance of the individual has become paramount. There is nothing to stop children, young people and adults claiming that there is no “right way”, “my way” is as valid as anybody’s. Only the end of the stick marked “the importance of the individual” is seen. The other end where the universal has meaning, is forgotten.
Many react with anger to the idea of there being anything like an objective developmental pathway for human beings. To do so would mean giving up a perceived freedom to be the way they want to be. This is like toddler tantrums at sensible boundaries, there is a denial of the larger developmental reality that imposes responsibilities, consequences and limitations. Many only see how such a view imposes “shoulds” and this is firmly rejected as life is a struggle enough without taking on board any other responsibilities or obligations, especially ones that imply you have been blind and asleep, and need to wake up.
But this view misses the point, there are no “shoulds”, there are laws which govern our development and maturing, we can’t run before we can walk, we can’t find compassion for another before we find it for ourselves, we can’t be un-selfish until we have reconciled our own un-met needs. “Shoulds” themselves are expression of unconscious compensatory need, because behind each should or ought there is the un-reconciled hurt of having been squashed.
There is a big difference between ‘should’ and ‘responsibility’, the former is always a projection and a fantasy whereas the latter can be a real and important reality in our lives. We can sometimes take on responsibilities that our not ours in a sort of compensatory process, often to do with a need to try and make the world a safe enough place for our wounded selves, but this does not negate the developmental nature of facing our responsibilities as a developing human being.
The universe runs according to laws of physics, chemistry and biology. As humans our psychology has its laws and part of this is the constant impetus towards health, wholeness and maturity we have deep within us. Life made us conscious beings and wants us to develop our consciousness, it wants Love to be in the world, it wants to celebrate its self-aware energy and vitality. For this to happen we have been blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with choice. We are not human beings without having, however small an element, of choice in how we live our lives. There can be no responsibility without choice.
There is much in the post-modern perspective that I agree with; that we have to make our own meaning; that we need to ‘de-construct’ all the assumptions and prejudices we have taken in and inherited, especially around power and whose definitions of reality we live by. We do profoundly need relationships and are wholly field dependant, right from the impressions we experience every fraction of a second, to the air we breathe and the love we need.
But as Perls put it, a crucial aspect of our psychological development is about moving from being dependant on environmental support towards being able support ourselves and then perhaps being able to support others. This is true for the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects of life.