May 9, 2010
CREATIVITY IN A TIME OF CHANGE
The following is a contemplation of some general strategies for coping
with a changing world, what I consider to be the essential feature of
the postmodern condition. In this essay I will address some of the
elements of this condition: (1) Though no consensus can be reached
about ultimate truth, you can still do a lot to find what is true for
you; (2) In a culture of maximal discontent, you can discipline
yourself to practice contentment; (3) in an era characterized by what I
call “overchoice,” you can learn to choose; (4) in a world suffused
with an unending variety of myths, you can carve your own path of
creating mythmaking; and (5) in a life filled with de-centering
distractions, you can re-center by going deep.
The postmodern condition presents a vital challenge to young people
entering the world. All the rules are up for grabs. What can we as
elders affirm when the superficial forms of what seemed to be true are
dissolving in a multiplicity, a plethora, a flood of alternatives? The
existential philosophies of the mid-20th century were themselves quite
varied and many of those writers might argue with each other. One theme
on which they generally agreed was the courage to affirm one’s own
existence in the face of what they called absurdity—the deep paradoxes
of life. Yet even in retrospect the language used, the way these issues
were framed, seem a little confusing. I find that the idea of
“creativity” helps me to clarify their work, creativity in addresing
the challenge of orienting oneself in this postmodern world. (See paper
on the Implications of Postmodernism
to expand on this idea.)
The elements of the postmodern condition constitute a set of
conundrums. A conundrum is a difficult question to be solved, perhaps
some of the qualities of a riddle. Let us consider some of these:
The Elusiveness of Truth
We are emerging from a culture that was relatively more stable, a
modern culture in which changes were happening at a slower rate. There
was still a strong residue of the worldview of the previous, even more
stable era—a worldview that had constructed doctrines, laws, rights,
principles, axioms, convictions, beliefs, and all of these were
associated with “truth,” which functioned as the mental and social
equivalent of gravity, of a firm grounding. Modern science sought to
know what this truth is, imagined it as being “out there,” objective,
able to be discovered by anyone. I am a product of this modern culture,
so I also at least partially believe this—at least insofar as a fair
category of physical conditions are concerned.
But increasingly I’ve become aware that most of our lives are
determined not by physical or objective realities, but rather by the
quasi-realities that derive from our own personal and especially
collective psycho-social creations. Our politics, religion, sources of
meaning, ethics, relationships, recreational games, economic
arrangements, ethics, philosophy, and so forth all constitute (for most
people) most of what we experience; and secondly, these mind-products
are all negotiable. They are culture-bound. What seems like truth to
some people is hardly that to others, and this ambiguity and relativism
is deeply decentering.
The postmodern problem is that there are few non-trivial truths that
can be agreed upon by a wide spectrum of the population. Some clubs,
churches, political movements, can pretend that they have a claim to
absolute truth, but their naive claims deny the realities that
increasing numbers of people dispute those claims.
There is a way past this conundrum: Choose to live without guarantees
that you are completely right, fully justified, absolutely secure.
That’s the element of courage in creative living. We have been sold a
bill of goods in being taught that anything works at the level of
absolute, full, complete, or other terms describing that kind of
guarantee that allows the mind to sigh and lapse back into half-sleep.
Instead, surrender into the flow, realizing that there may be new
discoveries, new insights, paradigm shifts that make what we had
thought to be absolutely true not so true under other circumstances.
It’s okay, because there is another way to live.
I think the aforementioned concept of ongoing creativity offers a kind
of life ethos, an existential choice, a spirit of dancing with the
universe. There’s a relinquishing of the “ground” and the need to be
rooted in truth—a desire for security that just isn’t there. (Looking
back, considering the ongoing threat of disease, war, civil disorder,
social changes, economic booms and busts, and other expressions of the
wheel of fortune, that security never was there. Still, people clung to
the hope that “righteousness” would evoke divine protection from such
vicissitudes, which it never did, really.)
For those who feel this is a proposal that denies traditional notions
of religion, I respond that living an engaged, creative life is living
into faith at a more mature level than the traditional attitude that
following what were believed to be divine rules—often about rather
trivial matters—guaranteed protection or salvation. Daring to take on
the world as it changes is a faith-filled encounter with a divine
milieu that is unfolding rather than fixed, that is itself coping with
emerging qualities and situations that hadn’t happened before.
In other words, there is in the modern world a turning away from the
world-view that believed in a timeless cycle of humanity, and the best
that we could hope for would be justification in the next life. The
modern world might be characterized by the gradually emerging sense
that there was progress, discovery, invention, and that new types of
awareness really shifted the nature of what life was about. There are
many who still deny this, because the old belief system offered more of
an illusion of guarantee. Faced with those who say with conviction that
you’ll do just fine their way, the appeal of creativity and open-ended
receptivity to what’s emerging seems either wonderfully courageous or
foolhardy. It depends on your need for that guarantee, for security,
for a formula. The postmodern era just brings an increasing pressure,
as demonstrated by an increasing variety of possibilities, to know that
lots of people are not basing their lives on the fixed truths that you
thought were absolutely necessary—and they’re doing okay!
The Culture of Maximal Discontent
The proliferation of media is accompanied by a proliferation of
advertising and political and charitable appeals. The subliminal
message is that you’re not doing what you can to help yourself and help
the world. This is true to some degree. There is always an edge of
possible activity. The problem is that in the postmodern era the number
of charities, the number of alternative health fixes, the number of
mainstream health-care activities, of cosmetic or clothing fix-ups, of
appeals to every appetite, in cars, vacations, travel, sexuality, and
so forth, is truly un-ending. How can a person know where to draw the
It begins by knowing that a line must be drawn, and that it is good and
wise to do so. One needs to set up a kind of force-field shield, the
way space ships do in the Star Trek or other science fiction movies.
It’s a matter of psychic survival to decide to be limited in one’s
capacity, and to do so without having to buy into a feeling of shame or
There is a balance to be drawn, and each person needs to find that
balance for himself. Too much shielding or avoidance leads to
complacency and a disengagement from life. Too little and one becomes
chronically anxious and guilty for not having done more. What makes it
different for each person is the variety of role demands in that
individual’s life. Some people have more needs in their own health
care, more limitations of mobility and energy than others. Some have
more of a need for career development, for financial stability, for
responding to the needs of children or others whom they care for.
There needs to be a process of repeated re-alignment and a valuing of
contentment, even in the face of the cultural assault of claims and
implicit criticism that what one is and is doing is not enough.
Compared to ideals—who are themselves often artificially enhanced
images—it can seem as if one’s own life is puny. It is important to
recognize that the purveyors of a consumerist culture have every
incentive to disturb you thus, and to resist the pressures of the media
in this regard. They’re not aiming their blandishments at you,
personally, but rather, like a virus, are simply seeking an organism to
infect whose immune response has weakened.
In other words, one way to counter the culture of maximal discontent is
to affirm with repeated conscious attention the value of
contentment—that it need not be the best, but rather good enough.
The choice of types of cell-phones, computers, features on your iPad,
and so forth have now gone beyond the example I used a couple of
decades ago when I first coined this term. (That example involved the
number of choices of features for the new car you were going to buy—so
“Twentieth Century”!). Because of technological advances, people do
have more access to more individualized preferences, but for most
people, this thrusts them into a state of overload.
Dr. Hans Selye, the researcher who pioneered many studies on the nature
of stress, pointed out that the greatest stresses involve situations in
which a choice must be made—not to make a choice has significant
negative consequences—, and the basis for that choice is quite
ambiguous. That’s another way of describing the condition of
overchoice. For example, many people are facing medical challenges in
which there are a multiplicity of medical treatment options and it
remains unclear which ones to choose. Physicians sometimes take a stand
as to which option they recommend, but also sometimes leave it up to
the patient and his family. It remains to be seen whether the internet
is helpful in this regard.
The solution involves an act of courage in both affirming yourself and
seeking emotional support even as you take on the challenges of choice.
Part of the courage is to relinquish perfection, absolute success,
guarantees, and still to choose.
Here are a few guidelines for decision making:
1. Don’t rush into a decision if you don’t have to. Take a bit
of time getting the needed information.
2. Don’t avoid making a decision because it’s too
anxiety-provoking. There are certain points which must be acted on or
the risk of loss mounts rapidly.
3. Weigh the pros and cons as objectively as you can.
4. Consult with a dispassionate third party whose judgment and
good will you trust.
5. Keep the decision within the general guidelines of kindness
There’s still a risk of making a mistake because in the complexities of
the world it is impossible to know in advance all the pitfalls, quirks,
and variables. But if you’ve followed the aforementioned five
guidelines, you can reassure yourself that you’ve exercised good
Consider that your son or daughter in mid-life were facing such a
decision about a car, a marriage, a new home, a job—all of which can
theoretically turn into a misfortune. If they have indeed followed the
guidelines above, it seems to me that you should feel proud of them. If
they haven’t, you may continue your support, but also note which ones
of the aforementioned criteria were breached so that they may learn the
One myth that worked for a while in the mid-20th century was that all
the other meaning making efforts were myths—in the sense of being not
true. In this myth, the way to liberation involved analyzing and
counteracting myths, dissolving illusions, attempting to find a world
of factual truth. But a continuing study of psychology at an
inter-cultural level reveals that myth should be understood in a
different sense—not myth as untruth, but rather myth as providing the
necessary metaphors that structure the sense of human meaning.
Mythmaking is thus best understood as inescapable, it’s part of the way
people think. Some do it a little more consciously than others, but all
participate in a wide variety of personal and collective myths. You
shouldn’t take myths literally, but rather exercise the art of
interpretation (i.e., “hermeneutics”) in making these stories relevant
for your own era and your own life.
As psychology has begun to penetrate human culture, it merges with
anthropology, sociology, comparative religion, communication studies,
neurophysiology, and other inter-disciplinary fields. As we emerge into
the postmodern era, it becomes more clear that there are no fixed
truths in psychology, either. We create models, myths, theories, some
of which are more useful than others. In time, these also have to mesh
with new insights and transform or wither. (See paper on Creative Mythmaking on
this website for further ideas.)
My solution is to embrace the process, to participate consciously in
mythmaking. It used to be that it seemed necessary for a belief to have
been around forever, or at least for a millennium or so—the stamp of
authority and the stamp of age seemed to be complementary. I question
this as illusory, and suggest that modern myths, stories, contemporary
variations and re-tellings of the story, the activity of
re-interpreting with skill and depth—hermeneutics—all can thrive
without pretending to be based in ancient truth. While granting many
insights to our far-past ancestors, I feel comfortable also noticing
that there were lots of things they didn’t know—and didn’t even know
could be known. So again, the implication is to encourage mythmaking.
Left Brain or Right Brain
Another trend that has been wobbling back and forth is the dominant
sentiment in culture, with the more intuitive, emotional, personal,
aesthetic values as typified by the Romantic movement in literature in
the early 19th century on one side, and the hard, emotionless work of
science and some logical philosophies on the other. I see it not being
a matter of either-or but a creative synthesis of the best of both.
I see a deep need for the development of more critical thinking skills,
and that these are hardly being cultivated in modern education. (To do
so would be to invite the subversive question, “why are we learning
this?” and to demand a deep revision of the curriculum, a deep
re-thinking of what is more and less important for young people to
learn in the 21st century. This would make the expertise of many
teachers and professors more obsolete!)
I also see a deep need for the development of the capacity to imagine,
play, improvise, explore, integrate intuition and emotional
sensitivity, aesthetic sensibility and deep meaning. These are equally
if not more important to promoting the kinds of creativity needed not
only for innovation and economic competition in the world
markets, but also for optimal quality of life.
We need both, and we also need a balance of effort and enjoyment, of
engagement and quiet contemplation or meditation. The go, go, go spirit
of some sports and political activites, the illusion that this is good,
is also misleading as an ideal. Balance is more important.
Identifying Distractions and Re-Centering
The postmodern era is suffused with distractions. There are just so
many things to pay attention to. Each item is designed to lure you, it
panders to what are often basic (or base) instincts. Of course there’s
sex, and the appeal of victory in combat, but more subtle is the appeal
to live vicariously. Movies, sports contests, video games, television,
shopping in remarkably stimulus-rich malls, magazines, and so forth,
all promise the illusion of glamour, excitement, and participation
while at the same time using this relaxed absorbtion to be an
opportunity for hypnotic commercials. The power of myth is turned
towards distraction, a dream-like state that is coming to fill an
increasingly large fraction of lives. What goes missing is actual
engagement in relationships and helping the world be a better place,
work and some politics or service.
It’s not always easy to find meaning in work, either. Part of the
challenge in the postmodern era is to not give in to mere existence,
allowing relatively meaningless work to be balanced by relatively
meaningless but adequately satisfying distractions. A measure of
ambition is needed if only to work and study towards the possibility of
finding work that is meaningful! These challenges, as I say, are not
easy, but we must always struggle to differentiate between the
impossible and the merely difficult.
One of the pay-offs may be that of knowing that your life itself is a
work of art: How will you create and re-create yourself in an
ambiguous, complex world that is filled with temptations, distractions,
and forces that de-center you: “You shouldn’t be doing that! Come over
here and do what we value! This is more important!” “No, this over here
is even more important, or at least promises to be more fun! Your puny
life isn’t worth living as you are living it! That’s not really living!
This is the way to go!” Such voices are disguised in a thousand
costumes, but they operate with all the vigor of the electromagnetic
media, the zillions of radio, cellphone, twitter, facebook, and other
appeals to your attention.
There is a centering—some use meditation this way—others talking,
journaling, etc.—which brings to the fore your own taking stock,
re-evaluation of your life, what it’s about, what you want it to be
about. You sift through types of “wanting,” from mere appetite to
soul-need; you check out the reality of your own deeper life goals.
It’s sort of like the decision criteria mentioned above. It’s a
lifelong practice, like flossing your teeth should become. You can even
enjoy it, giving yourself the respect and time you deserve to
reconsider your life, its meaning, and its direction. You’d want your
kids to do this, or other close loved ones. (See lectures on Deep Maturity
to amplify these ideas.)
I think the best way to cope with the postmodern condition is to
re-center, to value creativity, to accept realistic levels of
contentment (without yet becoming enmeshed in complacency), to dare to
spend some time thinking out your own personal truths, what works for
you. In this way, you also begin to build a myth about your life, your
own chosen life story. Sure, there is a danger in being too grandiose,
or on the other hand, perhaps too modest. Part of the game is to try to
find your optimal balance, and one that also serves to encourage or be
an example to others, to support the emergence of others you love to do
likewise, and to support the larger circle of community or humanity or
life on earth to continue its Creative Advance.
Email me at email@example.com