Transitional Absurdity: A Developmental Notion That Offers Hope
A framework that speaks to a needed next chapter in our developmental story.
Posted December 12, 2022 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
As I reflect on our times and our future well-being as humans, I keep coming back to one concept from creative systems theory—what the theory calls "transitional absurdity." It is pertinent certainly to our psychological health, and also possibly to our survival. I address the concept in depth in my latest book Insight: Creative Systems Theory’s Radical New Picture of Human Possibility.
For those who are not familiar with the theory, its framework describes how, while we tend to assume that modern-age beliefs and institutions represent some kind of developmental ideal and end point, better we think of them as but one chapter in a larger story. And it speaks specifically of a needed next chapter in that developmental story, a kind of “growing up” as a species it calls cultural maturity. The theory describes how effectively addressing any of the most important challenges ahead for humanity will require the new capacities that come with cultural maturity’s changes.
But new cultural chapters don’t tend to arrive smoothly. Predictably, there will be a necessary time of transition where the loss of familiar truths causes disruption. The theory describes how we would expect this to be particularly the case with today’s needed changes. Transition between modern-age realties and cultural maturity’s more systemic perspectives requires a letting go of culture’s past role as mythic parent—and with this, the surrender of absolutist, ideological beliefs of all sorts. We should expect the resulting need to more directly confront life’s uncertainties and complexities and to take a new kind of human responsibility to be particularly disruptive.
The concept of transitional absurdity describes the craziness that we might expect with this dramatic and fundamental kind of disruption. It is understandable that we might find regression back to more familiar realities. And another creative system theory notion—the concept of capacitance—lets us be more specific. When systems face challenges that are greater than they can readily tolerate, often they will polarize in response. The more black-and-white world that results helps keep the challenge to capacitance at a safe arm's length. While such protection, at least in the short term, produces the opposite of what the needed maturity and complexity of understanding ultimately calls for, it is something we might expect to see.
This brings me to the question posed in this post's title. It is a question that more and more today occupies my thinking. I don’t know any more important question when it comes to making sense of the times we live in and discerning whether there is reason to be optimistic about the future. And I am not sure I know the answer.
Certainly, today we see much that is consistent with the notion of transition and what the concept of transitional absurdity would predict. Over the last century, postmodern sensibilities have presented important challenges to traditional truths. And we have seen the beginnings of new ways of thinking in multiple fields that increase possibilities and begin to reveal a more nuanced world. But particularly over the last 30 years, we’ve also witnessed behavior that is hard to think of as in any way sane. We’ve seen denial around critical issues like climate change and the extinction of species that could result in great pain if not dealt with wisely. We’ve encountered polarization around issues of every sort that pit neighbor against neighbor and directly undermine the making of effective decisions. And governmentally, around the world, we find regression—failure with regard to fledgling attempts at more democratic rule and the rise of authoritarian tendencies in even the more advanced of nations. More and more people today lack hope when it comes to the future.
Transitional absurdity is not the only possible explanation for these examples of craziness. It could be that we are just going through a rough patch that calls for greater responsibility and commitment but nothing fundamentally new. Many of the most respected thinkers today are reminding us that we can have democracy only if we are willing to defend it. Such counsel is wholly consistent with a traditional view that makes government as we have known it an ideal end point. It is also possible that what we encounter is a simple product of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back nature of societal change. If needed changes in our times are less fundamental than simply about refining what we have known, this could be the case.
It could also be possible that the challenges we face as a species are simply beyond us to effectively address. The concept of cultural maturity argues that this is the case in the long term if we are limited to how we have traditionally thought and acted. Our historical need for “chosen people” and “evil others” combined with today’s readily available weapons of mass destruction will lead eventually to major carnage. And our rampant materialism and disregard for the environment over time will make the planet less and less habitable.
But I find the concept of transitional absurdity most consistent with the evidence. And because I see it as most consistent with a vital human future, I cross my fingers that it is the correct interpretation. The concept of cultural maturity is new for most people, and what cultural maturity’s changes ask of us is considerable. But if today’s craziness is best thought of as a reflection of an awkward in-between time in its realization, there is legitimate reason for hope. And with a little understanding, the concepts of transitional absurdity and cultural maturity provide essential guidance in taking necessary steps forward.