Wisdom, unlike knowledge, never ages. Knowledge is built upon, brick by brick, stone by stone, but wisdom grows like a great everlasting oak – it is always relevant, because it gives us insight into who we are and into our quest for meaning as a human species. Indeed, like the Navi we can live within its embrace in a healthy and protected way. I quite despaired recently when I heard some reviewers quip that the great modern film epic Avatar had no great story line, but was merely good from a special effects point of view. Whatever film they were at, they certainly were not at the one I was privileged to view and appreciate in all its depth, height and breadth. My goodness, these critics must have been soul-less not to see that this film was Epic in the sense that the Bible is, in the sense that all the great tragedies of the ancient Greeks – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – and those of the greatest dramatist of all time – Shakespeare – are, and, indeed, the plays of all who followed in this wonderful tradition of the stage. Ultimately Avatar lies firmly with this Epic framework and those who lost its real meaning are blind to the very richness of our culture.
Now back to Rollo May who not alone was wide awake to the richness of our culture (or indeed cultures) but also was aware of the lies that modern alienated humankind had swallowed at the behest of would-be leaders in values alien to the human soul. As an existential psychologist and brilliant psychotherapist he had listened keenly to the “lostness” of modern humankind. What surprises me about the book I am at present reading from the pen of the late Rollo, namely Man’s Search for Himself is how relevant what he writes is to us today on the cusp of the twenty-first century, that this little book is as fresh now in 2010 as it was when it was written way back in 1953, five years before the present writer was born. As I said in my opening paragraph, which got lost somewhere in its passion for mythology and for the dreams of humankind, if not of our great mother Earth, Gaia, wisdom lives on and is as enlivening for us today as it was 3000, 2000, 1000, 500, 100 or 10 or 1 year ago or even yesterday.
In this wonderful little classic Rollo May deals with the anxiety of modern humankind and offers us a lot of wisdom in facing it and dealing with it. His argument is simply stated. We are so alienated from our real selves, so lost, and so soul-less that we experience severe anxiety and are almost unaware of this until our diseases wake us up with a start – be they that of a heart attack, stroke or cancer etc.
However, May does see a positive in anxiety, and a great one at that, namely that anxiety can and does lead to awareness. This has long been one of the clarion calls of the Eastern religions, that is, to wake up, to become aware of our very life, our very being, our very soul. Call this entity psyche, if you will, a word I love, both because of its antiquity and its profundity. The goal for humankind, according to May, and according to many, many others is that of inner integration (another one of my gurus Dr Anthony Storr uses the very same word) and self-realization (also used by Carl Ransom Rogers). In all of this May recognises the pain and the struggle of Everyman and Everywoman against the background of the middle of the twentieth century when everything external to human meaning seemed to be breaking down and disintegrating. Remember May was writing this book less than ten years after the Second World War and was listening to of his clients in the wake of the horror unleashed on humanity by that war.
It is no wonder that he quotes much from philosophers and writers and artists who between them had distilled much of the suffering of the century and previous centuries into their words and works. He quotes both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche many times, two of the first great existentialist philosophers to be pioneers for generations of meaning-seekers and meaning-makers. I’ll finish with a quotation from both, the very ones that May picked for the flyleaf of his little classic book.
“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose oneself... And to venture in the highest sense is precisely to become conscious of one’s self.” Soren Kierkegaard.
“The one goeth to his neighbour because he seeketh himself, and the other because he would fain lose himself. Your bad love to yourselves maketh solitude a prison for you.” Friedrich Nietzsche.
To be continued.