But before diving straight in, it’d be helpful to first get a sense for how most of us typically ground and orient our lives, and what the consequences of doing so are. In the absence of universal guidelines or directions for being human, most of us end up cobbling together a makeshift ethical compass based on a collage of different voices: the voice of our parents, of society, of our managers and leaders, of the experts, of the scientists, of our religions, and maybe, if we’re a little lucky, of our own experience too. All of these voices suggest different ways we should live, different things we should value, different views of right and wrong, different stories we should ground our lives in. But there’s a problem here in that these voices often clash with and contradict each other. At times they might truly support us, but other times they can do us great harm, at worst, or keep us distracted from goals we might deem truly worthwhile, at best. But more profoundly, each of these voices, in their own unique way, disowns or neglects a different aspect of our humanity, rendering them all inadequate as ways to orient our one human life. I’ll briefly lay out a few issues with two of these voices: religion and society.
The answer to how we should live has historically fallen under the purview and concern of the world religions. Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, the ancient Rishis, and many others across millennia have provided us with mutually-incompatible sets of instructions (or more rigidly: commandments) for living one’s life. Both the Old Testament and the Quran, for instance, prescribe terrible punishments to those who worship other gods. Dogmatic impositions of this sort are unlikely to survive repeated head-on collisions with an increasingly complex and pluralized world—primarily due to the divisiveness they promote. The rapid rise in people who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” may further attest to the rising incongruence between religious belief systems and modern reality. This incongruence is most evident in real-world examples such as needing police officers to do one’s groceries on Saturdays or, more problematically, needing to suppress one’s deep embarrassment for being both Catholic and gay. Even the Dalai Lama himself, as the chief representative of Tibetan Buddhism, has acknowledged that although religions mean well, they are no longer adequate frameworks in which to ground human ethics (i.e., the way to live our lives). So where to now? Do our societies teach us to live well?
“It turns out that the hidden normative messages make us hate ourselves. That is no way to live.”
While we all judge ourselves against society’s norms for at least some of our lives, the simplistic and superficial values that societies typically promote are rarely in harmony with human nature. I refer to these values as the societal ethic we are socialized into growing up. Speaking firsthand about the American and European societies I’ve lived in, people are taught to value the external dimensions of life, such as physical appearance, individual success, money, fame, college pedigree, job title, and house size, to name a few. There are several fundamental problems with orienting one’s life in this way, however, as evidenced by the variety of psychological crises we are currently suffering from on both sides of the Atlantic; e.g, the loneliness epidemic
, the mental health crisis
, the body image crisis
, the elderly care crisis
, the mass shooting epidemic
in America, to name a few. This reminds me of an eye-opening 1990s study
conducted by Harvard public health researchers, where they found a significant increase in the number of eating disorders in young women—on the island of Fiji—after the introduction of American television programs. It turns out that the hidden normative messages in American TV programs—among countless other forms society’s voice can take—can kill us
, or a bit more mildly, make us hate ourselves. That is no way to live.
So the question stands: is there a way for humans to orient their lives that doesn’t rely on the divisive and dogmatic aspects of religions nor on the misguided norms of our externally-oriented societies? Is there some deep foundation we can base our lives on that doesn’t lead us to hurting, hating, or to becoming deeply ashamed of ourselves and others in the process? Is it possible to support younger generations to navigate the phases of a human life in a way that respects, supports, and might develop who they are and what they are? I think there might be.
The Growth of Mind and Heart
Great thinkers across millennia allude to a kind of hidden developmental potential in human beings, even if they use different words to describe it. In the 6thcentury BC, the Buddha told monks that a luminous mind
was the result of a lifelong cultivation of the mind and heart—a process he called citta-bhavana
. Two centuries later, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about an inner force within organisms that directed their development towards a hidden potential (or telos). He named this force entelechy
. German philosophers of the 17thcentury coined the concept of Bildung
, which again refers to the cultivation of inner human potential, much like a seed that blossoms when the right conditions are in place. In the 18thcentury, Nietzsche held that the developing human spirit could undergo 3 metamorphoses
: into a camel, into a lion, and finally, back into a child, who represented a mature adult’s return to the state of innocence
, humility, and play. In the 20thcentury, Carl Jung viewed the purpose of human life as a psychological quest to actualize one’s inner potential—a process that happened in the second half of life which he called individuation
. A few decades later, the pioneering psychotherapist Carl Rogers held that organisms were driven by a self-actualizing tendency
—a deep inner force pushing the organism along its lifespan to fulfill its potential, which he equated with the highest level of ‘human-beingness’. And finally, just a few weeks ago, clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson suggested to Russell Brand that developing greater levels of consciousness might just be the antidote to human suffering. And here we are.
While the above thinkers make a strong case for a hidden capacity to grow, actual maps of how the human mind develops emerged only within the last hundred years. Jean Piaget may have been the first true pioneer in this area with his brilliant theory of cognitive development, which revealed that infants, children, and teenagers undergo a series of qualitative psychological transformations on their journey to adulthood (read Jonathan Rowson’s perspective on Piaget here
). And while Piaget did not explore much beyond early adulthood, later developmental theories found that such transformations could happen within the adult mind, too. These theories include Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation, Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial maturity, Jane Loevinger’s theory of ego-development, Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and, more recently, Robert Kegan’s Subject-Object theory. Most of these theories view human development as a lifelong journey that can speed up or slow down depending on the inner and outer conditions of our lives. And while Kegan’s framework is the one I’m personally most familiar with, all of the models above appear to be pointing at a similar capacity for the growth and transformation of the human mind and heart—albeit using different words. Intriguingly, this developmental capacity happens to converge with those suggested by the thinkers in the previous paragraph.
Subject-Object Theory is primarily a story of what human beings are and how they grow. But it is many more things too. It is an exploration of how the things that matter to us most—what we truly value–change over the lifespan. It is a map of how our consciousness evolves and becomes more complex over years and decades. It is a theory of what it means to be a mature adult, as well as an immature adult, a teenager, a child, and an infant. It is an account not only of how the mind comes to see more of reality, but of how the heart comes to feel more of reality as well. It is an indicator of the psychological territory we’ve lived through, as well as of the unknown potentials we may yet reach. But to keep things simple—which is my main intention—let’s go with the first description: it is a story of what we are and how we grow.
“We humans construct the meaning of experiences from moment to moment, second to second, from birth until death.”
The story begins like this: to be human is to make and organise meaning. Without being aware of it, we humans construct the meaning of experiences from moment to moment, second to second, from birth until death. It’s as if deep within our psyches we keep a hidden diary about what everything means, how much things matter, and what kind of relationship we have to them. We live our very lives according to this hidden diary of meanings, which suggests that meaning-making is what creates our subjective reality (i.e., how we know and experience the world). Meaning-making appears to be the primary (or possibly even sole) function of our consciousness, too. We begin making meaning the day we’re born, as that’s when our minds are first tasked with making psychological sense
of the chaos we are thrusted into. The meaning-making activity continues through every phase and moment of our lives, as our awareness of life continually expands and we are challenged by new experiences that compel us to create new meanings and reorganize old meanings. Ultimately, Kegan takes this view to its natural end, stating that the human being is a process, rather than a discrete thing or entity. To be human, in other words, is the process of meaning-making—the process of writing and rewriting our hidden diaries of what things mean.
None of that just discussed is technically new or groundbreaking, as the idea that we construct our own version of reality rather than see reality itself is relatively common knowledge. “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are,” as an anonymous saying goes, or, as affective neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barret writes, we are the architects of our experience. But there are 2 big discoveries that human developmental theory brings to the table. The first is that the activity of meaning-making evolves in a specific direction over the lifespan. In other words, the way we construct our reality grows and changes in a predictable pattern over time. This is what the term maturity refers to, as well as the term higher consciousness, though we often have difficulty articulating what those terms actually mean. The second big discovery is that these evolutions of meaning-making happen not only to children and teenagers, but to adults as well. In fact, distribution estimates suggest that a very small minority of adults (less than 1%) reach the far-end of this developmental journey in their lifetimes. The majority of us fall somewhere near or just beyond the midpoint—and often for the rest of our lives. The takeaway is that most of us adults have an unrealized developmental potential that we don’t quite understand–yet.
I’ll get into more technical details of Kegan’s theory in future posts, but for now, the 4 key points I want to convey are: (1) that the way we make meaning and construct reality evolves over time in a particular way; (2) that most adults fall somewhere around the midpoint of this developmental journey; (3) that this developmental journey has been flagged and communicated by numerous great thinkers across history; and (4) this story of a human development in one lifespan may be powerful enough not only to reshape and redefine the way we understand human nature, but also to ground and orient the course of our lives, as well.
A Human Developmental Ethic
So what if, instead of basing our one life on the stories we’re told by our societies and religions, we were to base it on this deep unfolding of our inner human potential—on the natural evolution of our consciousness? Well, for starters, it would mean a move away from stories and ethics that fail to grasp the full complexity of human beings. For example: societies encourage us to pursue more productivity and efficiency, but at the expense of our need for rest and balance
. We’re told to pursue physical beauty, even if it means disowning our natural blemishes
and aging bodies
. The more happiness the better, the story goes, even if we have to conceal our struggles with sadness, fear, and pain in the process.
Religions aren’t much better in this regard, unfortunately, as their rules also clash with intrinsic aspects of our humanity—be it our sexuality
, our drive for freedom and autonomy
, or our longing for equality
. These stories don’t work simply because humans are more complex than these stories suggest, which makes it harder to see and accept what we, and others, actually are.
“As humans we sometimes need to be highly productive, both for the world’s sake and our own, but we equally require long periods for rest, silence, contemplation, and inaction”
I’ve already hinted at the complexity that I think lies within us, but I’d like to put some of it into words. While it’s true that we experience happiness, joy and fulfillment from time to time, it’s also true that we experience sadness, insecurity, despair, and hopelessness from time to time. Our human bodies are young, attractive, and strong at one point, but they are naturally old, weathered, and fragile at another. As humans we sometimes need to be highly productive, both for the world’s sake and our own, but we equally require long periods for rest, silence, contemplation, and inaction. It’s true that our habits, needs, and desires are stable for long periods, but it’s equally true that all of those can transform multiple times over the lifespan. This is what we are—creatures of opposites, of both stability and evolution, of order and chaos, of beauty and ugliness, of creation and destruction, of good and evil, of composure and volatility, of potentials and limitations. We are not just one thing that stays the same, but many things that continuously change.
“We may benefit from orienting our lives not around another political ideology, religious myth, economic system, or social construct, but rather around the process of human growth itself.”
The story of human development manages to do more justice to this human complexity than any other story or set of stories I’ve come across. It does this by acknowledging that profound growth and change within us is not only natural, but it is to be expected (and even celebrated) throughout life. Furthermore, growth always involves a period of breakdown, chaos, and meaninglessness, which—if the individual is properly supported—can be reliably followed by a period of breakthrough, new stability, and meaningfulness. We grow precisely by fluctuating between these opposing poles. In this way, developmental theory makes space for however we happen to show up in the world, even if those forms are currently neglected or disowned by societies and religions. As Carl Jung writes: “There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”
Our strong hunch at Perspectiva is that we may benefit from orienting our lives not around another political ideology, religious myth, economic system, or social construct, but rather around the process of human growth itself. Doing so may allow us to yank our worldviews out from overly-narrow and overly-simplistic stories of who we are, how we should live, and what our potential actually is, and re-insert them into a broader and more accurate story of what we are and how we grow. Research in this area suggests that development happens in a similar fashion universally, regardless of nationality, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, skin colour, and time period. We’re all on this journey together.
In conclusion, it turns out that human beings are more like plants than they are like machines. Like plants, we grow and are deeply affected by our environments. This is the shift in perspective our understanding of human nature needs, simply because it is true. And to better tend a garden of plants and wildflowers, one must understand and respect the conditions that best support their growth. Human developmental theory tells us that this inner drive to grow is already within us, each of us, and that it’s movements and yearnings can be trusted. We just need to give it the space, attention, and deep support it requires to do its thing—that is, to further develop our minds and hearts.