“Man cannot handle very much reality.”
– T.S. Eliot
Some Capacitance questions: How do you know if you are up to a task (beyond just having requisite skills). What is required for Whole-Person relationship of any sort (beyond just care and insight)? What will be demanded of us as nations if we are to avoid destroying each other and ourselves (beyond just right policy)?
It is amazing that we humans can handle as much reality as we do. But there are limits. And a critical piece of Cultural Maturity is learning to be newly conscious of those limits and the way they play out in our personal and collective lives. Earlier I introduced the language of Capacitance. Capacitance describes how much of life, how much of creation’s intensity, a system can handle. The volumes within the circles in the Creative Function represent evolving Capacitance.
Aliveness has to do with where a system’s creative edge may lie. Capacitance concerns what it takes to be there. Pull back from that creative edge and experience goes dead. But push past it and the system risks being overwhelmed and damaged. The phrase “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen” is a reference to Capacitance. Capacitance systemically circumscribes measures such as skill, intelligence, emotional maturity, power, adaptability, and sensitivity. It measures how much life we can take in. In the movie A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson’s character was asked at trial to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, he responded, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” Capacitance is about how much truth a system can handle.
As with Aliveness, Capacitance as a measure is not new. At some level it is what we have always used to acknowledge potential. The mature stages of any formative process reveal limits to the possible—a sense of proportion is a key ingredient of wisdom. And even without such maturity, common phrases and figures of speech reflect that at some level we know this is how things work. We recognize that things can “get too much.” In sports we refer to “playing within our game.” There is the modern notion of “information overload.”
Capacitance too escapes logical definition and concrete pictorial representation, but we can define it quite precisely in terms of aliveness (and thus also in the language of formative process). Creative Systems Theory defines Capacitance as the amount of aliveness—the amount of formative intensity—a system is capable of embracing and tolerating. At any moment, individuals, relationships, communities, organizations, or states possess a certain capacity for experience. As a function of where each is in its development and how each has uniquely evolved, there is a specific “volume” of creation that the “vessel” that each has become can hold. Capacitance, like the space in a jar, bowl, or balloon, defines both possibilities and limits. Step beyond those limits and the container may break. It is like a computer’s RAM (its available active memory). If the amount of RAM is sufficient, the computer will run smoothly; if it is not, the computer will run poorly or even crash.
Measuring Capacitance more consciously and directly is not necessary if mature systemic understanding is not required. Split mind and body and we can measure intelligence adequately with an IQ test and body with a physical exam. But Cultural Maturity’s more integrative personal and social imperatives demand that we address all questions of possibility and capacity more systemically. If I wish to hire someone to fill a leadership position for which the job description could change dramatically—as is so often the case today—I don’t want to base my decision purely on present skills. I am interested as much, if not more, in the person’s ability to learn new skills, or even more generally, how successfully the person handles complex and changing circumstances.
What ultimately I want to measure is related to skills and intelligence, but more embracing, and less easily quantifiable. I am interested in how much of the “stuff of life” the person can effectively hold and manage—their overall capacity to learn, act, relate, and grow. With most all of today’s new tasks, from the most personal to the global, we need to discern not just attributes, but what circumscribes them, how, and how generously and robustly, they are held. (We could contrast Capacitance (that overall volume), capacities (available types of Capacitance), and abilities (ways we’ve learned to manifest different kinds of Capacitance).) Our personal capacity for Whole-Person relationships—between friends, lovers, parents and children, leaders and followers—is ultimately a function of Capacitance. So is our ability as larger systems—communities, organizations, ethnicities, and countries—to relate with the new maturity our world increasingly demands.
When I choose participants for think-tank groups designed to address major social issues, I think carefully ahead of time what level of Capacitance will be needed to effectively take on the particular issue. It matters not how skilled or clever I may be as a facilitator, if the group can’t manage the needed level of engagement, we will fail at our task.
Contrasting Capacitance and Aliveness helps solidify the concept. Aliveness has to do with the creative edge of truth, Capacitance with how much truth we can handle. Aliveness refers to significance, Capacitance to the possible magnitude of that significance. Aliveness is about sensing where we need to walk, Capacitance about how much we can carry without losing our balance.
Each of this book’s core themes, if grasped with sufficient completeness, could be used to define Capacitance. Capacitance is the amount of uncertainty a system can tolerate (keeping in mind that wallowing in uncertainty is a great way to diminish uncertainty). It is a system’s capacity for responsibility (keeping in mind that an untimely excess of responsibility of the more traditional sort can dampen life and thus ultimately diminish one’s capacity for responsibility). Equally it is a measure of the amount of change a system can successfully engage (keeping in mind that creative change is very different from both rearranging the furniture and avoiding stability). It measures the amount of complexity a system can effectively embody (keeping in mind the difference between complexity and the merely complicated). It reflects a system’s ability to tolerate ultimate limits (keeping in mind that simply succumbing to limitation and maturely engaging limits are not at all the same). It is a product of a system’s capacity to Reengage (though only past the developmental point where Reengagement is timely—and keeping in mind that Reengagement is not about going back). And, most directly, Capacitance is a measure of a system’s capacity for truth (keeping in mind truth’s full systemic nature).
The concept of Capacitance has easily unwelcome aspects. We encountered previously what is for many the most problematic—how directly it confronts us with limits. We like to believe that options are infinite and that people—and larger social systems—have unlimited potential. The concept of Capacitance reminds us that neither is the case. Our options are limited by how much our systemic “vessel” can hold before breaking. Sometimes the growth a challenge might demand is beyond what a system is currently capable of engaging. At some level we know this. A caring parent does not inflict responsibilities on a five-year-old that require a ten-year-old’s maturity. A good teacher recognizes that while yes, “any child can learn,” not all children can learn as well or at the same speed. It is the same with larger systems.
And like Aliveness, Capacitance confronts us with limits to what we can know and measure. No litmus paper test exists for Capacitance. Higher Capacitance systems tend to share certain characteristics, but in the end, the only “device” capable of directly measuring the capacitance of a human system is another human system. Further complicating the task of discerning Capacitance is that we are all highly vulnerable to bias in our determinations. Depending on our profession, ethnic background, and personality style, and more, we carry inherent prejudices with regard to what comprises “real” Capacitance. (Most people tend to over-estimate the Capacitances of individuals and groups with creative energetics similar to their own and underestimate Capacitance when there is marked difference.) All this means that our measurements will never be cleanly objective nor totally precise in the sense that parts of ourselves might prefer.
Given the inherent uncertainty involved in making creative discernments and this vulnerability to bias, a person might rightly ask why we should make the effort. The answer, of course, is that with increasing frequency Capacitance is what we need to measure—and all we have available to measure. And, the situation with regard to measuring Capacitance is not as dire as these observations might suggest. If what makes measurement uncertain is understanding’s ultimately creative nature and we are creative systems, then we arrive in the world with the necessary equipment for measuring. While we may not be conscious of the fact, we are all already pretty good discerners of Capacitance. Such has always been an essential ingredient in how we choose friends, mates, mentors, livelihoods, and beliefs.
Capacitance comes in many colors and flavors—reflecting how it situates in creative time and space. Like Aliveness, it is a single gesture concept whose gesture reaches over a broad terrain. Some aspects of personal Capacitance are more intellectual, others more interpersonal, practical and applied, athletic, or artistic. Different kinds of Capacitance are needed for different professions and different kinds of Capacitance manifest most at different times in a system’s lifetime. We can apply the concept in specific and more encompassing ways. Keeping different kinds of Capacitance distinct in our thinking can sometimes most creatively serve us. But, with increasing frequency, we face challenges that require us also to address Capacitance more broadly—with regard to more general human capacity, or indeed our Capacitance as a species.
The answer to the question of whether we can increase a system’s Capacitance includess good news and bad. The natural developmental course of any creative system involves gradually increasing Capacitance. And any new learning or self-awareness expands Capacitance. But while new Capabilities can be acquired rapidly, such is not the case with new Capacitance. Capacitance walks one step at a time and is not easily rushed. This observation might seem to run counter to my earlier assertion that creative systems make leaps in organization. But leaps have less to do with Capacitance than with changes in the containers we use to hold it and in the worldviews that accompany different approaches to creative organization. We can draw again on that image of a snake shedding its skin. The skin shedding represents leaving behind old interests and relationships to truth. The gradually expanding girth of the snake represents increasing Capacitance. (The greatest predictor of increasing Capacitance is current Capacitance. Capacitance begets Capacitance—unfair but true.)
Identify four or five systems important in your life (individual people, interpersonal relationships, and at least one larger system). For each, would you describe its Capacitance as high, about average, low? Try discerning more precisely—on a scale from one to 100. (Most people find this easier than they initially expect.) For each, also, say what you can about the “flavor” or “color” of Capacitance it most manifests.
Now take a moment to identify at least one challenge that each system will likely confront some time in the future. For each challenge ask yourself whether it can be met within the system’s existing Capacitance. If it cannot, ask whether the stretching of Capacitance (growth) that addressing the challenge would demand seems possible, and, if so, what it would require. If it seems not possible, ask yourself the implications of this for your relationship with the system.