Cultural Maturity, Projection, Mythologizing, and the End of Ideology

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future

A look at some of the underlying mechanisms of traditional belief—particularly belief of an ideological sort—provides important support for the claim that Modern Age assumptions don’t represent the end point we tend to associate them with. Cultural Maturity’s changes helps us understand in more whole-ball-of-wax, “systemic” terms, and when it comes to ourselves, think and relate in more Whole Person/Whole System ways. Modern Age consensus reality assumptions necessarily leave us short of Whole Person/Whole System understanding. A brief look at how this is so helps us make sense of what more is required. It also supports the conclusion that we are already taking solid steps toward getting there.

A basic recognition gets us started: Historically, understanding has been organized in the language of polarity. Either/or juxtapositions of the us-versus-them sort we’ve just looked at are easiest to recognize, but less dramatic this-versus-that juxtapositions—polarities such as mind versus body, material versus spiritual, or masculine versus feminine—have lay beneath traditional beliefs of all sorts. In the end, such polar opposites similarly represent aspects of larger systemic realities. And while they may not be so obviously ideological as those of the more vehement sort, in a similar way they protect us from complexity. Whether we most side with one pole or just think of poles as describing separate worlds, the result is static, one-size-fits-all beliefs.

A couple of polarity-related mechanisms play key roles in how ideology works. The first concerns how, in times past, we’ve often attributed aspects of our personal and collective selves to other individuals and larger systems—“given parts of ourselves away.” The second involves how this “giving away” is almost always accompanied by distortion. I use the terms “projection” and “mythologizing” to describe these two dynamics. Projection and mythologizing are related—aspects of a single mechanism—but treating them separately helps keeps things simple.


Psychology provides our language for the “giving parts of ourselves away” aspect of this dynamic, at least for how it manifests personally. When we “project,” we act as if elements in our inner workings were in fact characteristics of people or groups outside of ourselves. Projection is an unconscious mechanism seen with immature behavior of a personal sort all the time. When a person is said be acting like an adolescent, being reactive, or blowing something out of proportion, projection almost always plays a role. The person attributes to the world threats and possibilities that have more to do with him or herself.

We are not so used to recognizing that projection manifests in our collective behavior—and we are certainly not good at catching it when it does. In part this is because of how inextricably tied cultural projections have been to consensus realities. When it seems that everyone around us believes a certain “truth,” it can be hard to get a wider perspective. But it is also because the ability to recognize such projection is something that is only now becoming a human capacity.

In fact, projection does very much play out at a cultural level—and continues to hugely affect beliefs and behaviors in our time. Us-versus-them examples like we see with “chosen people/evil other” dynamics between nations have the most obvious implications for culturally mature leadership. We retain the light and deny any part of our darkness, projecting it instead onto others. Today, any possibility of a peaceful world depends on the realization of more Whole System relationships between the world’s peoples. Hold onto the projections of times past, and Pogo’s quip that “We have met the enemy and he is us” become not just the truth, but quite possibly the end of us. I’ve described evidence that we are beginning to witness the ability to leave such sentiments behind us.

A related handing of parts of ourselves to others for safekeeping has, in times past, ordered every part of our collective lives. One of the most important additional examples relates to leadership more generally. We have always before now projected our power onto leaders. Like with nationalistic projections, the idealized projections of traditional leadership have served us by providing a sense of safety and order. Recognizing how this has been so has direct implications for rethinking leadership in our time. It also further supports the claim that Modern Age belief can’t be the last word.

This projective mechanism is most obvious with pharaohs and kings, who were seen, if not as gods, certainly as god-like. But this same mechanism has continued to work in our time, hidden beneath our “final ideal” beliefs about modern democracy. When people in their minds made Ronald Reagan the kindly father figure, or applied the fantasy imagery of Camelot when picturing John and Jackie Kennedy, their conclusions were as much products of projection as real-world reality.

Good future decision-making will require an essential  “growing up” in our relationship to leadership. Just as with the demonic imagery of “evil other” nationalistic projections, such leadership-related  projections are ceasing to benefit us. Stripped of the idealized parental projections of times past, the leader’s role becomes necessarily more humble—that of a good and smart person doing a difficult job. In the process, it also becomes more powerful. A big part of the reason for this is that mature leadership is better able to tolerate and manage complexity. It thus produces more sophisticated decisions and is capable of ultimately more potent effect.

I suspect the need for more Whole Person/Whole System authority plays a major role in today’s crisis of confidence in leadership. We find significantly less trust in leadership today than at the height of anti-authoritarian rhetoric in the 1960s. Not only have old forms of leadership in almost all fields stopped working, they feel less and less like leadership to us at all. Shortly, we will look at how we are making progress here too.

We also find examples in which projection comes into play with societal dynamics that manifest more personally. The topic of love might strike some people as out of place in this discussion, but it presents a particularly useful illustration. Certainly, it helps us appreciate how broadly Cultural Maturity’s changes manifest—no part of our lives is left untouched. Love’s changes also further affirm how our current cultural chapter is not the end of the story. And they provide important additional insight into the demands of new leadership, in this case in our personal lives (and ultimately into the demands of leadership more generally).

In my work as a psychiatrist with individuals and couples, nothing strikes me more than how fundamentally the realities of love are changing— and not just what it takes to make love work, but how love itself works. The Modern Age gave us the advent of romantic love. We celebrate this kind of love—symbolized by Romeo and Juliet—as love based on individual choice, and tend to view it as a kind of final realization. But while romantic love did represent a profound step—it took us beyond bonds that were determined by family or a matchmaker—it was not yet about individual choice, at least not in today’s needed more Whole Person sense. As has remained the case with national allegiances and formal leadership, our romantic vision of love is based on projection. I unconsciously ascribe feminine aspects of myself to you; you, likewise unconsciously, ascribe masculine aspects of yourself to me. With romantic love, we make the object of our affection our brave knight or fair maiden. Romantic love is two-halves-makes-a-whole love.

While in its day, romantic love brought profound new possibility, today we witness changes in love that are even more profound in their implications. Whole Person love is fundamentally different. It requires that each person acknowledge a more whole-ball-of-wax picture of human identity—both their own identity and the identity of the person they love. At the heart of these changes is a greater ability to acknowledge projection when it is happening, and a greater interest in finding ways to love without projection’s past defining influence.

We recognize the beginnings of this “growing up” in our relationship to love in our modern questioning of traditional gender roles. What we encounter with our questioning of gender roles is more significant than just new behavioral options. We glimpse the possibility of loving another person more fully as themselves rather than for who we unconsciously need them to be. It is also very different from making men and women the same—a unisex ideal. Indeed, the outcome is, in an important sense, almost the opposite. It is to offer, really for the first time, a chance for us to relate as wholly embodied men and women. As with mature relations between nations or between leaders and citizens, relating in this way is at once more humble and more rich (and profound) in its possibilities.

With each of the examples I’ve noted—with concerns of war and peace, with leadership, and with love—we see how the polarity-based realities of Modern Age belief have, like those previous, provided protection from life’s full complexity. With each of these example we also recognize wholly new realities that involve leaving behind the projections of times past and holding reality in more whole-ball-of-wax ways. With each we’ve also seen how we are coming, at least a bit, to think and act in more complete—and with this more complex and nuanced—ways. On all these fronts, not only are we confronting the importance of stepping beyond the ready projections of times past, we see such projections fading in their influence.

The relationship between projection, ideology, complexity, and culturally mature perspective in each of these examples is the same. Projection protects us from complexity by creating an illusion of order—of static predictability. It keeps us safely sheltered in an either/or, black-and-white reality. Stepping beyond projection makes possible more demanding, but also ultimately more encompassing and coherent understanding. In the process, it propels us into a more multihued and more potential-filled world of experience.


Projection’s complementary mechanism—mythologizing—has been just as key to the unquestioned power of past belief. When we mythologize, we give something magical importance (whether in a deified or demonized sense). Projection and mythologizing commonly work together. With the examples of national identity, leadership, and love, you’ve glimpsed how, in times past, we’ve not just given parts of ourselves away, we’ve also given the disowned parts symbolic significance. The basic idea that culture might have “parental” significance reflects this mechanism at a most encompassing scale.

When we project, we do three things. We split some whole into two parts—for example, good and evil, leader and follower, masculine and feminine. We give one half to the other for safekeeping. And more often than not, we also mythologize each part. When we project, not only do we attribute what we project to some locale outside of ourselves, we ascribe to the projected part—and, in so doing, to ourselves—inflated importance.

Individual development helps clarify how mythologizing has served us and helps bring attention to the evolutionary nature of these changes. The relationship between a parent and a child is always at some level symbolic. The parents of a two-year-old are more than simply people. To her they are all-knowing and much larger than life. It is critical that she see them this way. She needs her parents to be deities if she is to find the courage to venture forth into an as-yet foreign and easily confusing world. This need to deify her parents alters and distorts what she sees. But considering her stage in development, it does so in ways that are helpful, indeed essential.

In a similar way, through time and across continents, our cultural beliefs have provided us with elevated—mythologized—images. Our particular county’s flag affirms our country’s divine status, and, by implication, our own special status—however tenuous such status must be in a global world. We’ve likewise symbolically elevated experts of all kinds—political leaders, professors, ministers, and renowned scientists—giving them a standing and a perceived level of knowledge beyond that of the mere mortal. And we’ve related to our own culture’s beliefs about what is morally right—however disparate such beliefs may be from one culture to the next—with an emotional charge that makes obvious that these beliefs are much more significant to us than mere conventions of behavior.

Mythologizing necessarily distorts reality. But when such distortion is timely, it benefits us. Specifically, working in combination with projection, mythologizing has helped keep complexity within manageable bounds. In reflecting on mythologizing and its historical function, I’m drawn back to my training in medical school. Much that we did—from the wearing of white coats to thirty-six hour ritual stints in the emergency room—in the end had more to do with the assumption of a ceremonial role than the learning of medicine. I will initially critical of this. But experience helped me recognize its historic purpose. I remember once wondering as I watched a surgeon cut into the jello-fragile tissue of a young woman’s brain, whether he still could have carried out this task—there with life or death balanced on the tip of his scalpel—if he had not had medicine’s mythic trappings to protect him from the full responsibility and uncertainty of his craft.

Over the last few decades, physicians have made significant strides toward setting aside past deific imagery and approaching their work more as ordinary human beings with demanding roles to play. These changes in the physician’s posture hold important rewards. Working from a place of deeper humility ultimately translates into greater effectiveness and subtlety. But it also requires a willingness to hold life more complexly, and with a much fuller cognizance of how much we do not, and often cannot, know.

Mythologizing adds directly to how projection protects us from aspects of complexity we are not yet ready to embrace. Joseph Conrad observed that “every age is fed on illusion, lest men should renounce life and the human race should come to an end.”  Mythologizing is a primary mechanism of such protective illusion. But mythologizing today, like its partner, projection, leads ultimately to narrowly simplistic answers, whether the issue at hand is religious, intellectual, political, or moral. I like how Emerson described the problematical role of mythologizing in national allegiances: “When a whole nation is yelling patriotism at the top of its lungs, I am fain to explore the cleanliness of its hands and the purity of its soul.”

The absence of such emotional/conceptual “cleanliness” puts us at risk in ways it has not before. Certainly, it keeps us from questioning institutional structures and practices that badly need reexamination. For example, we could not have had widespread, yet unchallenged, sexual abuse by clergy without this “protective” mechanism. More personally, it blinds us to uncertainties and complexities that might seem harsh at first blush, but that ultimately provide keys to a vibrant and mature life.

Certain of our mythologizings, and indeed some that could most easily lead us astray, are particularly easy to miss. I think of how we mythologize ourselves as a species. We become God’s special children set in opposition to a natural world that is at best a realm of mindless reflexes, at worst dangerously untamed. Either view makes for ultimately unsatisfactory choices that in the end put not just nature, but also ourselves as inextricable parts of it, at risk. Later we will look at how, in a related way, we mythologize conscious awareness and human will. Doing so was central to the great successes ushered in by Modern Age “Enlightenment” understanding. But the kinds of questions we face today call for a more humble, but also ultimately more powerful, approach.

Given the dangers presented by mythologizing, it is appropriate to ask just where we are in our efforts to get beyond this once helpful, but now limiting, mechanism. With the majority of the challenges we face, in fact here too we have made at least a solid beginning. I am not claiming that we have somehow moved beyond mythologizing experience. In fact, with the multimillion-dollar salaries paid to modern sports heroes and the front-page notoriety given to the tabloid lives of Hollywood “superstars,” a person could argue that mythologizing has never been more prominent. But if we examine the dynamics of more everyday personal and cultural decision-making—such as those that we looked at with global relations, leadership, and love—we see that mythologizing, like projection, today has ceased to serve a creative cultural function—and, for a growing number of people, has diminishing appeal.

Ideology and Systemic Understanding

I use the word ideology in a particular (or we might better say in a particularly general) way—to refer to systemically partial beliefs that protect us from life’s complexities. Projections and mythologizing always play roles. To put ideology in historical perspective and understand it in relationship to Cultural Maturity, it helps to think of its as having two basic types. There is ideology of a more here-and-now, us-versus-them sort and that which reflects the generally accepted, “consensus reality” of any particular time in culture.

Ideological belief, as we most commonly think of it, reflects contrasting positions at a particular point in time. It identifies with one slice of the pie in that particular time’s systemic complexity and sets it in opposition to the rest. Ideology of this first sort has been with us through the whole of history. It protects us from life’s bigness in a couple of ways. First, it takes one aspect of a multifaceted picture and makes it the answer (one side wins over the other). Second, it makes an evolving reality static (one side not only has the truth, this is final, once-and-for-all truth).

We are less likely to use the word “ideology” to describe the generally accepted, “consensus reality” beliefs of any particular point in culture, but in the sense that traditionally they, too, have protected us from complexity, the term remains helpful. Shared cultural absolutes have protected us from life’s bigness by creating unquestioned order in a world that otherwise would have had an overwhelming multiplicity of options.

Actually these two sorts of ideology are not as different as these descriptions might suggest. More accurately, the first kind of ideology is a subset of the second. Similar to what we see with cultural mores, the tendency in times past to pick and choose between aspects of systemic complexity and divide experience into worlds of us versus them has been something we have always shared. At any past stage in culture, these two basic sorts of ideology have worked together to keep complexity within manageable bounds.

Recognizing this common ideological component in the thinking of times past, and appreciating how challenges ahead require that we think more complexly, brings us up against how we have tended to think of the shared assumptions of our Modern Age as some final ideal. I’ve proposed that Modern Age belief is not a last word, and could not be. Recognizing that ideology has played the same kind of role with Modern Age belief that it has with the beliefs of times previous supports this conclusion.

It is a conclusion that collides head-on with beliefs we cling to dearly and that on the surface seem quite logical. For example, the ways we describe modern institutions support this “final ideal” belief. We commonly describe institutions in terms of a final realization of the individual. We think of modern representative democracy as an ultimate manifestation of individual determination. In a similar way, we view market capitalism as a final expression of personal initiative. Likewise, we commonly look on modern religion as a culminating demonstration of the specifically personal relationship with one’s God that was first introduced with the Reformation. The ways we most commonly think about modern understanding similarly support this “last word” conviction. The objectivity and clarity that has given us today’s great technological and scientific achievements is celebrated as an ultimate expression of the Enlightenment’s grand goal of bringing all of understanding into the light of pure reason.

But implied in how I have described ideology is the conclusion that Modern Age belief has drawn on the mechanisms of ideology as fully as that of any age previous. Ideology of the my-side-versus-yours sort has taken evolving forms through the last few hundred years, but it has never been absent. It has continued to have a central presence in every cultural sphere—in politics, philosophy, art, religion. And cultural absolutes have continued to play their essential role in establishing cultural order and coherence. The “postmodern condition,” with cultural guideposts beginning to lose their historical reliability, is a phenomenon only of the last fifty years.

If ideology protects us from complexity’s magnitude, and the important questions ahead require whole-ball-of-wax systemic perspective, then viewing our time as some kind of cultural ideal and endpoint is not justified. Creative Systems Theory highlights how the defining narrative of each cultural stage to this point—the way each stage has described what is important and how reality works—has protected us both from everyday complexities and also from our larger complexity as developmental beings, from recognizing the fact that culture evolves.  It also makes clear that these conclusions apply to Modern Age assumptions as fully as they do to the cultural narratives of any previous cultural time. Modern Age belief can’t be the last word—or if it is we are in deep trouble. And the observation that Cultural Maturity’s changes offer the possibility of more systemically encompassing, post-ideological perspective supports that it need not be.