Adam Blatner

May 9, 2010

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 partaking of 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 line?

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 guilt.

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 and ethics.

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 judgment.

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 lesson needed.

Creative Mythmaking

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.
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