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5.7 Phases of human development through challenging problems


1. Experiential phases and modes

The contents of the core sections of this Encyclopedia might be understood as linked over time in terms of the problems and values encountered under different challenges to human development. There are many concepts of the phases of human development (Section H). The possibility of such an ordering might best be illustrated through one which links such phases to value dilemmas.

It is instructive, for some purposes, to view phases as succeeding each other in time, possibly over a life cycle. It can also be useful to view such phases as being possible at any stage of a life cycle, but with different probabilities. It may therefore be more fruitful to consider that an individual of any physical age can be at different experiential ages with respect to each value dilemma.

Different people may thus be faced by different dilemmas at the same stage of life cycle, or by the same dilemmas when they are at different stages of a life cycle.

2. Value crises in a life cycle

In Erik Erikson's scheme (Childhood and Society, 1963), each individual goes through 8 stages in life. In each stage a value crisis is experienced which is crucial for continued development. The stages, with their corresponding crises are as follows:

  •  Infancy (basic trust vs. basic mistrust)
  •  Early childhood (autonomy vs. doubt)
  •  Play age (initiative vs. guilt)
  •  School age (industry vs. inferiority)
  •  Adolescence (identity vs. role confusion)
  •  Young adulthood (intimacy vs. isolation)
  •  Adulthood (generativity vs. stagnation or self-absorption)
  •  Mature adulthood (integrity vs despair)
Note that each value conflict is not resolved once and for all at the time the stage is traversed. It arises again at each subsequent stage of development. In transcending each crisis, it is neither necessary nor desirable to eliminate the negative portion of the value-polarity. The challenge is to ensure the emergence of an appropriate balance or dynamic between the two value extremes at each stage.

Resolution of any value dilemma cannot readily be based on any formula or argument. Whilst there may be logical arguments concerning the nature of the appropriate balance, these will be challenged by subtleties of experience that will highlight the existence of degrees of freedom other than those encompassed by any explicable pattern of concepts.

3. Moral and ethical dilemmas (virtues and sins)

An effort has been made by Donald Capps (Deadly Sins and Saving Virtues, 1987) to relate the stages in this life-cycle theory to the traditional basic sins and corresponding virtues of the Christian tradition (taking into account reservations concerning male bias noted by critics of Erikson's original theory). This is of interest because of the view that such root sins engender other problems by a sort of "domino effect". Analogous views can be found in other traditions, notably the Buddhist.

To make such an inquiry more topical, such root afflictions, or psycho-social traps, need to be recognized at a group level rather than solely at the individual level. In this way the link to societal problems is more firmly established.

Capps associates a "deadly sin" with each stage. Each such sin is appropriate to the corresponding stage as a prominent factor in the moral or spiritual life of that period, whose basic psychodynamics it reflects. The sins are not rigidly tied to particular stages but are linked to them through their common psychodynamics. Sins may thus emerge earlier or later than the stage with which they are primarily associated. Capps elaborates an 8-fold set of sins in the following sequence corresponding to the above stages: gluttony, anger, greed, envy, pride, lust, apathy, melancholy. There are striking resemblances to the Buddhist equivalents (see Section PZ).

4. Group sins or afflictions

With increasing reference in the 1980s to "corporate greed", it is interesting to explore the possible collective equivalents to these sins. In the light of Capps analysis, these might run as follows:

  • Excessive consumption of resources, especially energy
  • Collective anger, especially expressed in violence
  • Collective greed, especially in the accumulation of resources
  • Collective envy, especially for resources controlled by others
  • Collective pride, typically as arrogance and triumphalism
  • Collective lust for power, typically as expansionism
  • Collective apathy, typically in response to emerging problems
  • Collective despair, typically in acknowledging current impotence and in recollecting past failures
5. Appropriate responses and saving virtues

Traditionally, and as developed by Erikson and Capps, there are characteristic saving virtues through which people can most effectively respond to the above sins. Equivalents are to be found in the Buddhist and other traditions. These too tend to become particularly significant at different stages of the life-cycle. Using the same sequence, they are as follows, again expressed in terms of what might be their collective equivalents:

  • Hope, which is expressed both individually and collectively
  • Will (or Courage), especially in frequent appeals for the "generation of the political will to change"
  • Purpose (or Dedication), increasingly evident in the formulation of "mission statements" and implicit in "resolutions"
  • Competence (or Discipline), increasingly stressed as vital for effective management
  • Fidelity or Loyalty, increasingly a concern of corporate human relations programmes and security procedures
  • Love, increasingly explicit in "green" approaches to the environment and traditionally implicit in recognition of the "brotherhood of mankind"
  • Care, especially evident in relief programmes
  • Wisdom, occasionally acknowledged in calls for collective wisdom and statesmanship
In the Buddhist tradition, the equivalents might be considered to be the component elements of the Eightfold Noble Path:
  • Right outlook;
  • Right speech;
  • Right acts;
  • Right livelihood;
  • Right endeavour;
  • Right mindfulness;
  • Right rapture of concentration.
6. Implications for sustainable development

From this perspective the challenge of sustainable development is one of both comprehending and giving form to balance. It is the imbalanced resolution of the value dilemmas which engenders problems. The difficulty is that whilst it may be easy to talk of "balance", it is quite another matter to comprehend its nature in practice (as is readily appreciated in learning to ride a bicycle). The dynamic balance, or Buddhist "middle way", involves eight degrees of freedom, when expressed in terms such as those above.

7. Proactive response to the challenge of appropriateness

It is ironic that understanding of any such scheme of sins and virtues in the West tends to be somewhat passive, in that any significance it has is determined by the slow development through a life-cycle. Any battles against "sin" remain private and personal matters, without any sense of strategy, as with the cultivation of "virtues". In this sense any form of personal improvement is considered to be largely an illusion within establishment institutions and disciplines (except under the guise of acquisition of marketable skills by training and experience).

By contrast, spiritual traditions in the East appear to challenge this passive determinism, rejecting the fatalistic subjection to the current life-cycle in favour of programmes of spiritual disciplines with acknowledged phases and insights through which the individual is transformed. The West has developed sciences of "development" designed to transform society, whilst assuming that human beings themselves only change through ageing and the acquisition of skills. The East has developed sciences of personal transformation, whilst assuming that any effects on society are lacking in lasting significance. The West has focused on the growth of society, neglecting the growth of the individual. The East has done the reverse. The West focuses on the life-cycle of the individual, whereas the East focuses on the spiritual cycle or journey (irrespective of how it may relate to the physical life-cycle).

8. Development of insight in learning cycles

Schemes such as the above suggest that people or groups at different learning stages generate different kinds of problems and can usefully cultivate corresponding strengths to counter them. It is unreasonable to expect any form of general consensus or shared understanding in such a dynamic context. This could only emerge through insights into interweaving cycles of development.

Whilst the management skills to organize such initiatives have been developed by the West, it is the East which appears to have a more profound articulation of the qualities of insight that need to be developed and how they need to be interwoven to reduce problem generation.

The situation is of course totally confused by the claims of both management "gurus" in the West and of spiritual "gurus" from the East, all with markets to cultivate and under competitive pressure to offer distinct products to potential customers. It remains to be discovered how their genuine insights can be effectively interwoven in response to the challenge of the times.

9. Disempowering injunctions

If there are eight things to be held in balance, as when learning to ride a bicycle, injunctions concerning any of them may be less than helpful. The difficulty is that, although the learner may have some knowledge of what is meant by any one injunction ("care", or "right mindfulness"), this knowledge is limited precisely because the person (or group) has not yet learnt its full significance in practice.

Efforts to ensure implementation of the injunction, through obedience to rules or procedures, do not guarantee achievement of the requisite level of insight. They may help to orient the learner, but they may also discourage and disempower. This is particularly the case when the learner has sufficient insight to recognize that the real challenge does not lie at the level of mechanical rules and procedures but in what amounts to the aesthetics of balance. At this level, it is less a question of whether the rules are obeyed to the letter and more a question of whether balance is maintained. Perfection may lie, as with an important principle of Japanese aesthetics, in the harmony of imperfections.

Exhortation and injunction may in many situations simply lead to what amounts to "learning fatigue" -- an appropriate complement to "compassion fatigue". In this sense they can be totally counter-productive.

In this light, the focus in the international community on elaborating declarations, rules and agreements may well orient usefully those addressed, but it fails to address the challenge of how they are to learn the secrets of balance. Worse, it reinforces the views of those focused on single-factor explanations and remedies, such as "market forces", "peace", "conservation", "equality", or "love". For them the answers are already self-evident and there is no collective learning challenge. Such approaches may be necessary, but they are not sufficient to obtain an understanding of the balance ultimately required for sustainable human development.

10. Intriguing dilemmas and developmental koans

In one sense the issue is the classic challenge of how the learning process can be made attractive, interesting or seductive. However the emphasis is not only learning things which can be taught mechanically or by rote. Rather it is the question of catalyzing the leap of imagination through which a new paradigm is grasped experientially enabling energies to be controlled in new ways. There are some classic responses to this challenge:

(a) Sufi tales of Nasruddin: The Sufis have deliberately cultivated an extensive set of teaching stories. They are brief, witty and call for a paradoxical switch in perspective. They may told purely for entertainment, thus ensuring their survival and wide dissemination, or they may be the basis for discussion and meditation. Such fables exist in other cultures. However it is those of the Sufis which are best designed to maintain the challenge to insight and to resist simplistic interpretation.

(b) Paradoxical aphorisms: All cultures have a store of paradoxical aphorisms which point to value dilemmas, holding their tension rather than indicating a simplistic way forward. Of course there are many other aphorisms which do the latter.

(c) Zen koans: These are deliberately designed as challenges to understanding, irritating the mind at the level at which it would like to respond to a dilemma so that finally it is forced to another level of understanding.

(d) Riddles and puzzles: In many traditions there are riddles and puzzles, often associated with magic. These point to the need to move beyond obvious modes of understanding to breakthrough to other forms of insight.

(e) Paradoxical strategies: In psychotherapy increasing attention is paid to the advantages of enjoining people to act in a manner contrary to that which they expect. Through encouraging them to act in a manner which, at one level, they know to be inappropriate, they achieve a fruitful relationship to what they need to learn.

(f) Meditation: Given the attention of Buddhists to these issues, it is not surprising that they have developed very explicit meditation techniques concerned with the development of understanding of the appropriate attitude from which to response to the value dilemmas. These are designed specifically to avoid engendering the kinds of problems which result from imbalance. The techniques are not only considered with the imbalance associated with particular dilemmas, but also with the level of balance required to respond simultaneously to all the dilemmas. The mandala is one diagrammatic representation of this understanding although, as a mnemonic device, the issue is with what insight meditators can learn to "read" it.

(g) Computer graphics: New developments in computer-generated graphics are permitting imagery to be generated that does not conform to the rules of the physical universe. Viewing such imagery is a direct challenge to the imagination and calls for a basic shift in perspective. Such techniques could well be adapted to encourage insights into dilemmas and new forms of balance.

8. Encapsulating sets of dilemmas

The classical sets of eight value dilemmas represent a well-established approach to human development. It could be argued that the challenge of the times calls for a more powerful statement of the dilemmas of global society. If the issue is not one of learning facts and responding to injunctions, where is the set of learning "puzzles" enabling individuals to obtain their own unique insights into the kinds of balance required for physical and psychic survival?

Different traditions and cultures might be explored to locate the "riddles" to which we are called to respond. Others might be designed by different disciplines. In a period when education is increasingly problematic, sets of 3, 5, 8, 12, or more intriguing challenges could offer a powerful complement to factual learning. The possibility is seductive because the answers to the dilemmas cannot be effectively verbalized without denaturing them. The "right answer" is one that opens new vistas and feels "right" for the individual. They are a matter of personal (and possibly group) experience, difficult to share.

How might the challenge of sustainable human development be expressed in this way -- as a major step beyond the disempowering and ineffectual injunctions on which so much confidence is vainly placed by the well-intentioned?