Henry Nelson Wieman suggests in his book Man’s Ultimate Commitment that we have a natural need to achieve in our lives the infinite potentialities present in us at birth. He goes on stressing the importance of our commitment to a life-long process that enables us to live our lives to the fullest. In order to have the Greatest Human Good he argues one has to commit to live Creative Interchange from within.
This special human interchange that Henry Nelson Wieman coined Creative Interchange is our ability to learn what others have learned, to appreciate what others appreciate, to feel what others feel, imagine what others imagine and to creatively integrate all this with what we have already acquired and form this way our true individuality. This Creative Interchange uniquely distinguishes the human mind from everything else.
The choice to commit oneself to live Creative Interchange from within is in fact a big decision that involves a choice to have experiences that teach us things we cannot know about from any other source but the experience itself. Someone who has never been fully aware of being in genuine Creative Interchange with another person can only know what contemporary science can tell him or her about the experience of Creative Interchange and/or what friends can describe to him or her, as best they can, what it is like to engage in Creative Interchange. Before engaging in Creative Interchange one might imagine undergoing some sort of experience that is surprising and intense and emotional. As it turns out, many of life’s big decisions involve choices to have experiences that teach things that we cannot really know from any other source but the experience itself.
When we face the choice whether or not to commit oneself to Creative Interchange, we can’t know what our lives will be unlike we’ve undergone the new experience, and if we don’t undergo the experience, we won’t know what we are missing. I know from experience that committing oneself to Creative Interchange is life changing, thus personally transformative. In the case of commitment to Creative Interchange you make the choice without knowing what it will be like if you choose to have that new experience, but the choice is big, and you know it is big. You know that undergoing the experience will change what it is like for you to live your live, and even change what it is to be you, deeply and fundamentally.
What makes it even more fundamental, that it is not just a one-time choice committing oneself to live Creative Interchange from within and not just a commitment to one person, like a marriage; it is a life-time commitment to every person you’ll meet from the moment you commit yourself to live Creative Interchange from within. And the outcome of this commitment is far from sure. While committing to live CI from within is a personal life-changing decision – for after all, your decision concerns mainly your personal future – we find ourselves confronted with the brutal fact about how little we can know about our futures, just when it is most important to us – speaking rationally – that we do know. The choice for Creative Interchange is no different as for many other big life choices, where we only learn what we need to know after we’ve done it, and we change ourselves in the process of doing it. To me, in the end, the best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become, what our beyond the actual, created self will be.
When a person has a new and different experience that teaches her something she could not have learned without having that kind of experience, she has an epistemic transformation. Her subjective point of view, her knowledge of what something is like, changes. With this new experience, she gains new abilities to cognitively understand certain contents, she learns to understand things in a new way, and she may even identify new information.
I had such an experience in 1977 during the start up of a Sulfuric Acid Plant in Visag (India). I was the start up engineer and thus overall responsible for the success of the start up of the new facility. During that start up an Indian engineer was heavenly burnt having been splashed with hot sulfuric acid when the valve he was opening on the sulfuric acid circuit suddenly burst open, while his body was just protected by a cotton work overall. This experience changed completely my mindset regarding safety, which ultimately changed completely my professional life. It was indeed the starting point of what I called later my second professional life. Safety became in one split second one of my values, a subjective personal value grounded by what it is like to have lived that particular experience.
The sorts of experiences that can change who you are, in the sense of radically changing your point of view, are experiences that are personally transformative. In my life those experiences included: experiencing a traumatic accident (as described above), having a daughter (Daphne 1972), experiencing the death of a parent (father Richard 1982 and mother Donatine 1987), fundamentally changing my career path (1988 and 1995), having a career setback (losing the ISRS rights in 1992), becoming grand father (Eloïse 2002, Edward 2004 and Elvire 2008), living through a deep depression (2008 – 2010), undergoing radiation and chemical therapy and a major surgery (colon cancer 2013), to name the most important ones. Those experiences were life changing in that they changed what it is like for me to be me. In other words, those experiences can change your mindset, and by extension, your personal preferences, and perhaps even your values and thus even change the kind of person that you are, or at least take yourself to be. In my case each of those experiences turned out to be a personally transformative experience.
So, such experiences are very important from a personal perspective, for transformative experiences can play a significant role in one’s life, involving options, that, metaphorically speaking, function as crossroads in one’s path towards self-realization. The path you choose determines where you take your life, what you will become, and thus by extension, your subjective future. While some of those experiences happen to you without you having chosen them, I learned through the years than you can have your own choices involving transformative experiences. Those transformative choices allow you to causally form what it will be like to be you in your future. In this sense you own your future (Peter Senge would say, you create your future), because it is you who made the choice to bring this future – your very own future self – into being.
The problem is that when you face a transformative choice, that is, a choice of whether to undergo an epistemically and personally transformative experience, you cannot rationally make this choice based on what you think the transformative experience will be like. Consider, for instance, the transformative choice of marrying ‘The One’. When you decide to marry someone, you are not deciding to be married at that time or for just a couple of weeks. It is not as deciding where you will spend your holidays: at the coast side or in the mountains. In fact you are deciding whether you want to commit yourself to an extended life event. This extended life event is in fact a continuous relationship between your future self and the future self of another person. You’re about to marry someone not just for the here and now, you are marrying this person for a long term. You are marrying to be part of each other’s life as you grow and transform, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Is the decision regarding getting married rational? In my personal case I dare to doubt this. We both made our decision by attempting to project forward our subjective future, to see what it would be for us to make a life with each other. Since we were the last of the Mohican’s (a metaphor I often use since we were both virgins when we got married) and thus did not live with each other for many years, like young people do nowadays, we did not know what being married really meant, let alone having an extended marriage. So we did not marry based on knowing what our future life would be like; we married based on a commitment to discover our future life together. This meant that we took on commitments that involved providing mutual support even though we knew that unexpected events and other kinds of events that life brings – for instance having a child – would happen. We committed ourselves that we would face these new experiences as one unit, a couple, not as a single person. While we knew some things before we got married, such as our current dispositions and inclinations, we could not know what it would be like to have the marriage that we would actually have. The only thing we knew was that our marriage would be an extended transformative experience.
Milan Kundera described beautifully what such a transformative experience is in his bestseller ‘The unbearable lightness of being’ in which he quotes Friedrich Nietzsche and uses the German proverb: “Einmal ist keinmal’. Gallimard first published this book, although originally written in Czech two years before, in French: ‘L’insoutenable légèreté de l’être’ in 1984. I bought this French edition in Paris in the fall of that same year and I enjoyed it so much that I read it all in one sitting.
The phrase “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is Kundera’s own, but to understand it we actually have to start with Friedrich Nietzsche and the idea of eternal return. Eternal return is the idea that our universe and our existence has occurred an infinite number of times in the past, and will continue to occur ad infinitum. In this theory, time is cyclical rather than linear. The idea of eternal return is an ancient one, but Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher, popularized it for modern times. That’s why the narrator of Unbearable Lightness refers to it as Nietzsche’s concept. Nietzsche explored what the consequences of such eternal return would be. In his eyes, eternal return was das schwerste Gewicht, or “the heaviest weight.” It was a petrifying concept to imagine that our lives have been and will continue to be repeated endlessly. But one could learn, through philosophy, to love the idea. The proper mind can embrace this weight, rather than be terrified by it. Nietzsche seems to conclude in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that we must live and act as though our lives functioned in eternal return, suggesting that we give our own lives meaning and weight by behaving this way.
Kundera argues that Nietzche was wrong and states: “Human time does not turn in a circle,” he argues; “it runs ahead in a straight line”. Nietzsche said that eternal return gives our lives the heaviest weight. So if our lives only occur once, it must mean – according to Kundera – that they are filled with lightness. This is where Kundera’s phrase einmal ist keinmal comes into the picture. And Tomas, one of the main characters of the book, translates this for us: “What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all”
The point which is interesting in our context is that if we live only once, then we can never compare the decisions we make to any alternatives. And if we can never compare different outcomes, we can never know if the decisions we made are correct or not, which means – according to Kundera – we can never judge them properly or take responsibility for them. Hence, Kundera suggests that to live only once is to live with lightness.
The question then becomes: “Do we want lightness, or do we want weight?” Which do we choose? Kundera takes a look at Parmenides, a Greek philosopher in the 5th century B.C. who considered the same question. Parmenides argued that lightness was positive and to be desired, while weight was negative. The narrator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being isn’t so sure about this. “The heaviest of burdens is […] simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment,” he says. “The heavier the burden, […] the more real and truthful [our lives] become”.
During the course of the novel, the narrator refers to the lightness of being in two different ways: the sweet lightness of being, and the unbearable lightness of being. Kundera argues that lightness is unbearable, but it is up to us as readers to understand the reasons behind his argument. The lightness may seem at first to be a sweet deal – no responsibility, no judgment, no meaning. Sounds like fun – at first. But eventually, as I’ve argued in my previous column[ii], we desperately would like for our lives to mean something. We want them to have weight and significance, because we want them to matter. The problem is then, still according to Kundera, try as we might to give our lives weight…we cannot. Our lives are fundamentally light precisely because they occur only once. So Kundera’s argument is two-fold:
- Nietzsche was wrong; there is no eternal return; our lives occur only once, and that makes them light.
- Parmenides was wrong; such lightness is not sweet, it is unbearable.
Notice that both these arguments are established right in the title of the novel and it takes (Kundera) the entire novel for the argument behind these ideas to unfold. By the way, as I’ve argued in my last book ‘Cruciale dialogen’, the title is a metaphor.
For what it’s worth, let me express my view on Kundera’s argument. I agree: ‘Einmal ist Keinmal’; you simply cannot live two lives in parallel. I cannot, at the same time, be married to Rita and be single. The consequence of that is that I cannot compare those two ‘lives’ the moment of the decision and throughout my whole married life, neither can Rita. Regarding Kundera’s question: “Is ‘being’ light or unbearable?” the only right answer is, as I learned from my mentor Charlie Palmgren, since the question is a ‘or’ question: YES![iii] Finally I really can’t say Amen to Kundera’s statement that because we cannot judge we are not responsible for the consequences of our decisions. To me we definitely are responsible for those consequences and what’s more they become bearable if we live Creative Interchange from within. In other words we should stay aware of the unfolding of our lives and take the right measures and decisions when needed. We are responsible for our actions, period.
Personally, I adhere to Wieman’s two-fold commitment, which keeps the “old” from obstructing the emergence of the “new” and keeps the “new” from abandoning and discarding the value of the “old.” Wieman’s said this requires following two-fold commitment: “A commitment to act on the current best we know and a commitment to remain open to what in truth can transform our current best to what is better.” Through living this two-fold commitment from within we will continually transform our mind as it cannot transform itself. The language surrounding the death of the old self and the creation of a new self takes on a new kind of significance. For Wieman, such a person is able to have the old self transformed in a way that takes on a wider world, a wider range of concerns, experiences, and valuations. For him, the greatest barrier to emergence of the new is the convulsive clinging to present beliefs, values, and habits giving them the loyalty and commitment that should be given to the Creative Good (i.e. Creative Interchange). Wieman’s central theme is self-commitment to growth and transformation through Creative Interchange; in other words, a self-commitment to the Creative Interchange process that transforms human life toward the Greatest Human Good.[iv]
So, Creative Interchange changes the mind in ways that the mind cannot do this by itself. The challenge of life is not to realize goods that we can now imagine but to undergo a change in consciousness in which there will arise possibilities of value that we cannot imagine on basis of our present awareness. This transformation of the mindset cannot be imagined before it arises and therefor cannot be planned or controlled, neither from the outside nor from the inside. One must cultivate a willingness to set aside present held values and open oneself to a creativity that leads the mind toward a wider awareness and a new consciousness. The human task is not to contrive a better form of living based on present understanding but rather to set the conditions under which creative interchange may operate to expand our awareness. The good of human life increases, as the mind becomes a more richly interconnected network of meanings.
Charlie Palmgren took the challenge of continuing the search for the conditions necessary for Creative Interchange to thrive. One of his first contributions was to make the barriers within ourselves to Creative Interchange visible by discovering the counter productive process: the Vicious Circle, his articulation of Wieman’s greatest barrier to the emergence of the new. The Vicious Circle is Palmgren’s view of how humans become disconnected from their innate Worth. He believes that human worth is the capacity to participate in transforming creativity. Worth is innate, in other words Worth is the innate need for creative transformation. He drives home his point clearly: “Our need for creative transformaton is to our psychological and spiritual survival what oxygen, water, food, exercise, and sleep is to physical well-being.”[v]
Concluding note: Man’s Ultimate Commitment – i.e. providing for the conditions for and living Creative Interchange from within in an awareness way – leads to a continuous transformative experience.
[i] This column is based on three books:
- H.N. Wieman. Man’s Ultimate Commitment. University Press of America®, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, 1991
- L.A. Paul. Transformative Experience. Oxford University Press. Oxford UK – New York NY, 2014
- M. Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. New York NY, 1984.
[v] Stacie Hagan and Charlie Palmgren, The Chicken Conspiracy: Breaking The Cycle of Personal Stress and Organizational Mediocrity. Baltimore, MA: Recovery Communications, Inc. 1998. p. 21.