The many stages of life


Earlier I talked about Richard Rohr’s two-stages-of-life interpretation of Christianity:

In the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not only about doing; it’s about being.

While pursuing more spiritual guidance, I ran across a similar stages-of-life theory by Robert Kegan, as interpreted by vampire-loving Buddhist engineer David Chapman.

In a nutshell, there are five stages of life that we go through:

  1. Stage 1: Totally self-focused. Own development and needs take priority over others. Overwhelmed by others’ needs.
  2. Stage 2: Other people and their needs are acknowledged. Social relationships with them are transactions of largely equal value exchange: equalitarian, voluntary, and consensual. Still self-focused, and sees relationships as tools for personal gain. Overwhelmed by relationships that are necessarily hierarchical, non-voluntary, or where equal value exchange is impossible. Not very generous.
  3. Stage 3: Other-focused; communal, social, emotional, empathetic. Sensitive to others’ needs and at least grudgingly accepting of unequal relationships. Overwhelmed by needy people and competing social demands; no way to choose who and what takes priority. Excessively generous.
  4. Stage 4: Understanding that all of society is a series of systems that people participate in for their own benefit. Fully comfortable with unequal relationships and able to reasonably judge and prioritize the competing needs and demands of others. Overwhelmed by the need to have multiple competing identities in order to work for and within each separate social system.
  5. Stage 5: Comfort with ambiguity and contradiction. Competing needs and demands of life’s systems are no longer seen as contradictory or even in competition at all. Ability to play many roles as required by the situation without loss of identity. Systems are tools to be created, altered, and destroyed as appropriate.

Some connections immediately jumped out at me: liberals are generally at stage 3, completely focused on other people’s needs and demands, and overwhelmed by the hurt in the world. Many have made it to stage 4, or are somewhere in between. The difference between a stage 3 liberal and a stage 4 liberal is usually extremely obvious. Libertarians are at either stage 2 or 4. The really insufferable ones are mostly at stage 2, unable to break out of an equalitarian ideal that isn’t applicable to most of real life. You can identify these people because they usually lack spouses or children, and have never had any leadership positions. Those at stage 4 are the ones who write books about the majesty of systems that liberals decry as cold and inhuman. Stage 3 conservatives are the one yearning for the 50s again, but a lot are in stage 4. There don’t seem to be as many conservatives dawdling in stage 3 as liberals; a great deal of conservative culture and philosophy seems to be designed to shuttle people quickly from stage 2 to 4, so stage 4 is where most mature conservatives are at. Chapman explains why:

I use “monism” to mean the denial of boundaries, differences, and specifics, and overemphasis on connections, unity, and equality. By “dualism” I mean overemphasis on boundaries, differences, and specifics, and the denial of connections, sharing, and commonalities.

The communal mode tends to monism; the self-interested and systematic modes tend to dualism. Fluidity recognizes the inseparable nebulosity and patterns of boundaries and connections, differences and commonalities, and so is the complete stance of participation—neither monist nor dualist.

Different people seem to have inherent tendencies toward either monism or dualism. Those tending to monism will find the communal to systematic (3 to 4) transition most difficult. In describing the systematic mode, I used the words “particular,” “specific,” and “different” frequently. This language is characteristic of that mode—and of dualism. Monism rejects these words.

People in stage 3 tend to misunderstand stage 4 as being stage 2. They cannot understand the dualism of systems, and assume that it is the same as the dualism of self-interest. For stage 4, respecting the dignity of the other person means treating them as adults with a private mental sphere that is generally none of our business.
Political leftism tends to monism, and rightism to dualism. The communal mode tends to mistake the logic of stage 4 for rightish ideologies, particularly capitalism. However, stage 4 is not inherently rightist or anti-leftist. Marxism is a systematic, technical, rational critique of capitalism—and therefore a stage 4 ideology. (Notwithstanding that campus communists rarely understand Marxism’s details, and often misuse it as a simple stage 3 rejection of systematicity.) John Rawls’ Theory of Justice is an elegant stage 4 systematic justification for leftism.

He also explains the philosophical reason for the modern upswing in leftism, particularly (and this is my interpretation, not his) the sort of naive, emotional leftism of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and social media feminism:

In modernity, new adults often left home to take a position in a systematic institution, such as a job, university, or the military. Learning to deal with institutional demands drove one’s transition from the communal to the systematic mode. That was never easy, but the institutions provided some support. Also, importantly, the legitimacy of systematicity was mostly unquestioned. Society agreed that learning to function competently in systems was a good thing.

Postmodernism’s accurate critique of modernity has had dire consequences for the possibility of growing from stage 3 to 4. The very essence of the contemporary, postmodern liberal arts curriculum is the claim that all systems are merely arbitrary, self-interested justifications for power. That makes positive identification with systems impossible. It’s mostly only STEM majors who can make this transition—which is probably part of why we are taking over the world.

Institutions are also, increasingly, accommodating and even validating stage 3 behavior in young adults. (This is a point of current controversy in universities particularly.) Although done with the best of intentions, institutions’ failure to challenge the communal mode may be detrimental to both individuals and society in the longer run. I am concerned that our culture may increasingly be actively impeding personal growth into systematicity—and providing less of the necessary support for it. More people are getting stuck in an earlier developmental stage. This may become disastrous.

This mirrors my experience in a liberal arts school perfectly. There is often this big debate about what higher education is supposed to accomplish: “Should university education teach concrete skills, or personal growth and development?” people ask.

In truth, today a liberal arts degree gives you neither. The way liberal arts are taught in universities now serves to celebrate and glorify stage 3 thinking, declaring it to be the pinnacle of human development. The problem here is that most freshman are already in stage 3. Being suffused in this environment for four years does nothing to help them grow. The only people for whom growth is possible are the few odd stage 2 libertarians in each incoming class (we’ve all met one or two) who can graduate to stage 3. Sadly, a modern liberal arts curriculum also teaches few skills that are economically valued in the marketplace.

By contrast, the STEM fields will both push you into a stage 4 systematic mode of thought and being, and also teach you valuable skills. So the original question is faulty; depending on what you choose to major in, you could experience personal growth and acquire new skills, or get neither.

This is what’s behind the phenomenon of many liberal arts degree holders becoming semi-permanent grad students and going into academia. They graduate from their course of study in stage 3 thinking and enter the private sector, only to find that it’s full of systematic stage 4 thinking that they’ve barely been exposed to except to denigrate it, and the result is total culture shock. The real world feels alien: cold, uncaring, mechanical, even inhuman. They quickly flee to the comfortable territory of academia where they can remain in a bubble of stage 3 thinking for as long as possible, and hopefully forever!

You can probably remember from your own life’s history when you made the transition from one stage to another. It may not always be linear. My upbringing sort of jumped me from 1 to 3, and I had to go back to 2 as a libertarian for a number of years in order to really understand and experience it. I moved into stage 4 during my computer science education and employment in various technology-related fields.

Chapman’s description of the transition from stage 4 to 5 really resonates:

Development beyond stage 4 is driven by seeing contradictions within and between systems. For stage 4, a system is justified by an ideology that grounds out in some set of ultimate principles. When you realize that the system doesn’t work as well as the ideology claims it should, you look for an alternative set of principles. This can motivate adopting a series of political or religious affiliations, each of which seems at first to be right; and each of which eventually fails you.

But at some point you realize that all principles are somewhat arbitrary or relative. There is no ultimately true principle on which a correct system can be built. It’s not just that we don’t yet know what the absolute truth is; it is that there cannot be one. All systems come to seem inherently empty.

This uncomfortable midpoint of the stage 4 to 5 transition is sometimes called “stage 4.5.” Here it’s common to commit to explicit nihilism. Understanding that there is no ultimate meaning, one comes to the wrong conclusion that there are no meanings at all.
Eventually, one notices that meanings continue to operate quite well despite their lack of ultimate foundations. Systems re-emerge as transparent forms. You no longer see by means of systems, but can see through systems as contingent constructions that most people mis-take as solid.

That’s basically what I’ve been doing for years: seeking out one all-encompassing system that perfectly explains everything. Having been depressed many times over the last few years over just what Chapman describes, I guess I’m stuck in stage 4.5, trying to finally break into 5. I suspect a lot of this blog’s readers are in a similar place, or already in stage 5. It seems like a great mental state.

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